(Very) Quickshot review of Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone

A *very* quickshot review for you guys today. Just finished reading Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone and wanted to give my thoughts on it. Actually, probably a little less than my full thoughts on it. I already read this for a few of my previous classes, but I may have to read it again and do a little bit of a historiographical (ask me if anyone doesn’t know what that is) review on it for my orals next year. It might cause confusion and inconvenience (at least) if I write a long review for my blog and then end up writing another for school (might get in trouble or something), so to be safe rather than sorry I won’t do much reviewing today. Instead, I’ll just briefly state how I liked the book, mention a few of its important concepts and areas of interest, and then address an amazon.com review of it I thought was unfair.

I found Berlin’s work to be *very* useful. I’ve read reviews that mention Many Thousands Gone is commonly used as a college textbook and I can see why–it offers as comprehensive *and* readable overview of the first two centuries of North American slavery as I’ve ever seen. And by “North American,” I mean that Berlin concentrates mainly on what is today the United States, meaning he explores slavery in the British mainland colonies, French Louisiana, and Spanish Florida. And by “first two centuries,” I mean from the early 1600s to just about the early 1800s. That’s a pretty respectable geographical area and a pretty wide expanse of time, but Berlin breaks his analysis down into manageable little sections both spatially and chronologically.

For his purposes, there were four main regions of North America: The North (New York, Rhode Island, etc.–the anti-slavery Union states in the Civil War, pretty much), the Chesapeake (Virginia and Maryland), the Lowcountry (South Carolina, Georgia, and Spanish Florida), and the Lower Mississippi Valley (French Louisiana). He then divides the 200 years he looks at into three periods: The Charter Generation (from the early to mid 1600s), the Plantation Generation (late 1600s to mid 1700s), and the Revolutionary Generation (from the 1770s, when the American Revolution began, to the early 1800s).

These divisions made Berlin’s arguments a great deal more understandable and thus digestible, at least for me. I think I have a fairly good idea of how slavery evolved before, during, and just after the U.S was founded, which is just what I was looking for. So I’d give this book a solid 5 out of 5, at least if I was reviewing it on amazon.com.

If y’all decide to pick it up like I did, I have one recommendation Read carefully Berlin’s description of  the difference between a society with slaves and a slave society, on pages 8-12. I’ll summarize it quickly: Slavery has admittedly and unfortunately been common throughout human history. But in a society with slaves, slavery was marginal to both the economy and the political system. A slave society, on the other hand, was dominated by slavery; usually it had an economy based on a staple crop which comprised most of its output and was harvested by many, many slaves working on plantations dedicated to it. The owners of those plantations dominated the politics of such a society. In North America, places like the Chesapeake started out as societies with slaves before the discovery of crops like tobacco turned them into slave societies, while others like French Louisiana tried to be slave societies but ended up turning into just societies with slaves. Now, Berlin is very clear that “societies with slaves” were no less brutal than slave societies and slavery was a terrible misfortune in both. He just points out that slavery wasn’t the centerpiece of life in the former as it was in the latter.

Indeed, Berlin in general  places a lot of emphasis on how slaves–through their own cunning and initiative–were able to blunt the misery of slavery to some extent. He describes the social lives of African-Americans in all four of these regions and how they adapted to changing conditions through the Charter, Plantation, and Revolutionary generations, managing to carve out spaces for themselves (such as black graveyards) even as their masters tried to take that away from them. The masters also opposed and encouraged, at different times and places, the growth of an economy among slaves, and Berlin spends a good deal of time explaining how a slave’s economy worked (growing their own crops or bartering gifts while the master wasn’t watching, or threatening to run away or do poor work to get him to agree to better rations, for instance) and how they influenced black life and the institution of slavery itself.

I very much liked this nuanced view of slavery. Yes, slavery is bad, of course, but historians ought to be accurate (even if we might never be “objective” XD) and if the slaves did manage to “negotiate” with their masters (and Berlin’s impressively well-documented sources indicate they did), anyone who wants to really understand the institution needs to acknowledge that. Lamentably, not all reviewers could grasp that subtlety, apparently.

I recently ran into an extraordinarily butthurt review of Many Thousands Gone on amazon.com. The guy called Berlin a “KKKer” because he didn’t concentrate exclusively on the suffering of the slaves. That’s ludicrous, of course; Mr. Reviewer was probably just a troll, or if not, too blinded by their own moral indignation (however justified it may be) to realize something important: That the concept of slaves “negotiating” with their masters doesn’t take away from the injustice of slavery, it emphasizes how the slaves were human beings who were cunning enough to force their masters to acknowledge their humanity. If the slaves had enough leverage (through threats of rebellion or whatever) to extract concessions from whites, it meant they weren’t prostrated, beaten-down domestic animals but active agents in their own history.

That’s a pretty high compliment to give an oppressed people, IMO–certainly not something a “Klansman” would say. :p

Anyways, this was a pretty fun entry to write! Nice and quick 😀 Next week, hmm…I think I *may* do W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk. Also, I got more books off amazon.com! Lemme list em:

All You Need is Kill: Tom Cruise’s latest movie, Edge of Tomorrow, is based off this, so I wanted to read it before watching the flick. I normally hate Tom Cruise, but I looooove power armor, and this book has a lot of that, so I’d read it anyways even if I wasn’t planning on watching the movie. I suppose power armor is enough to overcome my loathing of Cruise, haha.

Game Coding Complete, Fourth Edition: I wanna learn how to code my own games sometime :/

Consumer’s Guide to a Brave New World: Relevant to Ethan of Athos and its artificial wombs which I mentioned a while ago. Id like to learn more about that subject.

Neither Black nor White: It didn’t come in yet so I had to re-order it. I got a refund on my first order tho so I’m not too sad 😀

Japan’s Total Empire, War Without Mercy-Race and Power in the Pacific War, The Japanese Colonial Empire, 1895-1945: I wanna learn more about WWII era Japan 😮

That about does it for today, friends. See ya next Friday!!



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