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Cultivation and Culture: Labor and the Shaping of Slave Life in the Americas.

This volume of twelve uniformly absorbing essays examines the working lives of plantation slaves in regions of the Caribbean and the southern United States. The collection's unity of approach heightens the explanatory force of each individual essay and gives the volume as a whole remarkable coherence. Among th topics examined are the changing make-up of plantation labor forces, the historical development of task and gang labor in specific social settings, and the varying forms and outcomes of slaves' attempts--by cultivating and trading the produce of gardens and provision grounds or by seeking out short-term jobs for cash--to establish the material basis of a social existence that could achieve some independence of master's dominion. Each author explores the problem, framed by the editors' introductory essay, that, "for slaves, work was both Adam's curse--unrelenting toil from which they derived but few benefits--and a source of personal satisfaction and political self-assertion." Unlike approaches that have probed the sources of resistance to domination "offstage," these essays locate the origins, forms, and limits of slaves' resistance in contradictions that formed within the process of production itself.(1) Only the most cursory consideration of the separate essays is possible.

Ira Berlin and Philip D. Morgan effectively demonstrate how, within broad thoug never fixed constraints peculiar to the principal slave-grown plantation staple of sugar, tobacco, rice, coffee, and cotton, masters and slaves negotiated the terms of brittle, "uneasy bargains." Their skillful analysis of the varying social meanings of task and gang labor and slaves' gardens and provision ground restores interpretive vitality to discussions which, particularly in the contex of North American slavery, were in danger of becoming ossified by abstract typologies. Their introductory synthesis reinforces the judgment of contributor David Barry Gaspar, Woodville C. Marshall, and Dale Tomich that, in regions of the Caribbean, destitution and an uncertain food supply were compatible with slaves' access to land and de facto possession of tools. The interpretation serves as an important caution against some of the more sanguine inferences tha have at times been drawn from slaves' possession of or access to productive property.

Essays by Richard S. Dunn and David P. Geggus in "The Labor Force" consider the composition of plantation work forces. Dunn gracefully reconstructs the life histories of 504 slave women on Mesopotamia plantation in Westmoreland parish, Jamaica, between 1762 and 1831. Identifying trends that closely resemble patterns evident on other Jamaican sugar plantations of the era, Dunn concludes that "virtually every one of [the women] labored in the cane fields, that most of them did this work for many years, and that collectively they performed much of the hardest sugar labor," in the process suffering impaired fertility and shortened life expectancy. Geggus undertakes an intriguing comparison of the ethnic backgrounds of slave laborers and artisans on coffee and sugar plantations in St. Domingue after 1763, offering statistical evidence for his judgment that, by the late eighteenth century, "sugar and coffee plantations obviously constituted different social worlds."

Essays in "The Economy" link the evolution of plantation work routines in the cultivation of principal export staples to broader social contests. David Barry Gaspar's imaginative reconstruction of work routines on Antigua sugar plantations before 1800 considers how the inadequate numbers of able workers on "short-handed plantations" compromised masters' visions of plantation labor organization, impeded sexual divisions of agricultural labor, and added further stress to slaves' struggles to carve out space for themselves "in the long shadow of the master's will." Michel-Rolphe Trouillot thoughtfully underscores the disparate influences that the establishment of coffee as a principal export crop of "underdog" slaveowning groups in the West Indies after the mid-1730s exerted on the intensity of exploitation of slaves' labor and on slaves' physical well-being and their sense of community. Joseph P. Reidy and Steven F. Miller forcefully analyze plantation struggles opened by the rise of the Cotton Kingdom in their respective accounts of Georgia and Alabama-Mississippi cotton belts: the evolution of gang labor, the redefinition of work loads, and the fat of customary subsistence practices are linked to the broader political agenda o antebellum agricultural reform. Lorena S. Walsh contributes a nuanced examination of the impact of the transformation of tobacco culture and the onse of grain cultivation in the Chesapeake between 1690 and 1820 on the working lives of slaves, indentured servants, and free women in slaveowning households.

Essays in "The Slaves' Economy" offer a wide range of views on the social meaning of slaves' attempts to sustain independent productive activities. Woodville C. Marshall carefully distinguishes among the terms on which differen types of plantation lands were made available to slaves in St. Lucia, Grenada, St. Vincent, and Tobago; he emphasizes the importance of questioning the contemporary view that "each element of the slaves' domestic economy brought material benefit and possibilities for accumulation." Similarly, Dale Tomich's rich analysis of slaves' cultivation of provision grounds in Martinique caution that provision grounds at times assumed attributes of liberty and leisure in slaves' memories that they did not fulfill in time and space. John Campbell's highly original discussion links an increasing allocation of small tracts of land to South Carolina slaves, often for independent cultivation of short stapl cotton, to heightened restrictions during the 1840s and 1850s on their marketin activities and travels off the plantation. By contrast, Roderick A. McDonald interprets his unravelling of the myriad economic pursuits undertaken by slaves on Louisiana's sugar plantations as demonstrating that the "structure of the slaves' internal economy ... resembled the economy of a landed peasantry" and that its existence "contradicted the very premises of chattel bondage."

To read these essays is again to experience the breadth and excitement of an earlier cycle in the study of slavery in the Americas, when, between the ending of World War II and the late 1970s, an international community of scholars launched seminal investigations of the hemisphere's slave past. It is, therefore, somewhat surprising to learn that, in the editors' view, earlier studies "that have focused on the slaves' social organization, domestic arrangements, religious beliefs, and medical practices" have ignored the centra influence of work on slave life and thereby "obscured the activities that dominated slave life." To the contrary, these essays succeed because they link specific details about labor processes to economic, cultural, and political matters. The volume's splendid achievements seem part of a historiographical tradition that has interpreted struggles over the terms of human labor as encompassing struggles to shape human values.

Julie Saville University of Chicago


1. Thoughtful illustrations of these contrasting approaches are offered in Jame C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990) and Timothy Mitchell, "Everyday Metaphors of Power," Theory and Society 19 (1990): 545-77.
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Author:Saville, Julie
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1994
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