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Women's Work, Men's Work: The Informal Slave Economies of Lowcountry Georgia.

Reviewed by Loren Schweninger

Beginning in 1982-84, with Philip Morgan's seminal articles on the task system, rice culture, and property ownership among lowcountry blacks in South Carolina, and Georgia, a number of scholars have analyzed "informal slave economies" in various parts of the South. Innovative, deeply researched, and carefully crafted, these studies provided a fresh view of slave life, especially when compared with the profusion of black culture and black community studies of the preceding decade. Morgan and others argued that a widespread reward system - permitting slaves to produce their own crops, to buy, sell, trade, and barter with whites and other slaves - developed early in the colonial period and continued until the end of slavery.

Building on this literature, Women's Work, Men's Work examines the topic by focusing on the lowcountry of Georgia, 1750-1830, and by looking at the gender division within the informal slave economies. How slave women achieved a dominant position in the marketing of vegetables, milk, eggs, cheese, cakes, confectioneries, and the spatial dimensions of the market place in Savannah are explored with a keen eye for detail and imaginative use of primary sources. But the study does much more, looking at how religion and politics were affected by the slave economic system, and vice versa, as residents debated whether slaves should be permitted to work on Sundays, and whether the legal codes governing slave market activities should be enforced. Slaveowners believed that the tiny earnings and property accumulations of slaves served as deterrents to overt resistance (a dubious assumption); slaves discovered that the system permitted them a measure of autonomy. The author writes: "The enslaved population of low-country Georgia worked long and hard in their own time; they displayed an enormous amount of skill, ingenuity, and courage; and they often ran enormous personal risks - all in return for generally pathetic material rewards" (p. 186). They did so for some measure of economic and personal dignity, and to assist their families.

Most historians of slavery are familiar with the general themes, as well as some of the specifics in Women's Work, Men's Work. The question that might be asked is whether or not an analysis of the clandestine slave economies found in the coastal region - one of the most intensely studied regions of slavery - is the best way of understanding the South's "peculiar institution." In the closing sections of the book, the author notes that the "formal slave economy" in the area was characterized by savagery, as planters resorted to "physical, psychological, and emotional coercion, often of the most barbarous kind," to reap profits. This probably accurate portrayal seems strangely out of place, even rhetorical, coming as it does at the end of a book that is almost totally devoid of any examination of the violent encounters that characterized the daily lives of blacks.

But this is a criticism of the genre rather than the book under review. There is little doubt that the author achieves what she sets out to do. And although the use of "bondmen," "bondwomen," "bondpeople," throughout the study detracts from the variety of contemporary terms - albeit used by whites - that differentiated mulattoes, blacks, Negroes, quadroons, Africans, and West Indians, the critical remarks above should not detract from a well-informed, well-documented addition to the expanding literature of this particular aspect of slavery.

Loren Schweninger is professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. He is the author of three books on black history and a number of articles, including "Black-Owned Businesses in the South, 1790-1800," Business History Review 63:1 (Spring 1989).
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Author:Schweninger, Loren
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1995
Words:592
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