In case anyone’s interested. Formatting may be a bit weird and the footnotes got lost. If I can I’ll put the notes in later at the end or in a comment. This one doesn’t count for the Nanowrimometer.

      Philip Morgan surveyed historical scholarship on slavery in early America for an essay published in 2003 and found it vibrant and growing. The field has shown little sign of slowing since then. Morgan cited Joseph Miller and John Holloran’s mammoth 1999 bibliography printed in the journal Slavery & Abolition as a testimony to the amount of material in the field. Slavery & Abolition has continued to publish comparably lengthy updates to this bibliography every year from 2001. The length of these updates indicates that the field has yet to show any sign of slowing. Given the “vast outpouring of new research in this field,” it is not at all surprising that the field has changed a great deal since Morgan’s survey.1

      The immensity of existing slavery scholarship and the high rate at which new scholarship continues to appear means that anything like a comprehensive and up to date state of the field essay would be impossible. I have chosen to address scholarship that has emerged as new and innovative since Morgan’s state of the field, namely work which focuses on the slave trade. Studies of the slave trade could be described in part as African and African-American migration history, as the emphasis is in part on the forced mobility slaves endured. Some of this work has continued along the lines that Morgan anticipated, and some of this work has taken a direction which Morgan left largely unaddressed.

      In his state of the field, Morgan noted that historians now widely recognize that slavery “had a long history in the Americas, dating back to 1501.”2 Morgan identified a few turning points in this history. The first was the shift from societies with slaves to slave societies, which is to say, the becoming central of slavery to the society with an attendant loss of flexibility in racial categories and decreasing occurrences of manumission. A second turning point was the difficult to pinpoint moment when slave populations in the colonies began to reproduce themselves at rates faster than the death rate. A third turning point – really a pair of turning points with a complex relationship – was the growth of the transatlantic slave trade and the era of revolutions which changed concepts of freedom and challenged the principles on which slavery was based. The final turning point Morgan identified was the beginning of slavery’s decline, as slavery ceased to be the norm in the North and slaveholders’ began to produce a more diverse range of goods. Morgan wrote that “[d]iversification almost certainly improved the slaves’ material well-being, but slave family life, for example, was subject to new pressure and strains with increased hiring and sales.”3

The Atlantic Slave Trade

      The works I looked at did not address either of Morgan’s first two turning points. A number of works focus on Morgan’s third turning point, the transatlantic slave trade, “the largest involuntary migration known to history.”4 These works pay little attention to the revolutions of this era. Instead, recent scholarship has emphasized what happened aboard ships during the Middle Passage, which makes the works Atlantic history a literal sense, as the bulk of the stories they tell occur on the ocean. As Marcus Rediker writes, “from the late fifteenth to the nineteenth century, 12.4 million souls were loaded onto slave ships and carried through a “Middle Passage” across the Atlantic to hundreds of delivery points,” with about 1.8 million of the enslaved Africans dying en route, another 1.8 million dying in Africa in connection with the slave trade, and 1.5 million slaves dying in the first year of work in the New World.5

      The slave ship itself gets particular attention in recent works, as the site of much of the story of slavery. Rediker describes his most recent book as “[a]n ethnography of the slave ship.”6 Other works on slave ships take a similarly anthropological approach, engaging in the thick description of life and death at sea. Stephanie Smallwood devotes a chapter to the ways in which slave ships shaped the interaction between captives and captors. Smallwood notes that since “for the purpose of the transatlantic shipment” slaves were only “physical units that could be arranged and molded at will” like any other commodity, the only concerns slavers had was how many bodies could be packed into the ships’ hold. After all, the more human goods shipped, the more profitable the trip. Smallwood details how economic incentives led ship owners and captains to routinely crowd more bodies aboard ships than they were licensed to carry. “Only when the human cargo was thought to be large enough to raise the probability of death and the attendant loss of property could the slave ship be deemed ‘full’.” 7

      Emma Christopher analyzes on the three-way interaction between slaves, sailors, and ship captains. “In the testimony before the parliamentary enquiry into the slave trade [there] are countless example of seamen alleging extraordinarily cruel treatment” of sailors by ships’ captains. Christopher details examples of sailors worked to death, flogged to death, bullied to death (by suicide), instance boiled alive, chained to the mast until starved to death, as well as a host of tortures which did not kill.8

      This violence served important functions aboard slave ships. Shipboard violence increased mortality rates among sailors, which Christopher estimates at a staggering 20% of all sailors. (183-184.) Arguably, sailor mortality had an economic function, in dead sailors did not need to be paid. More importantly, shipboard violence helped prevent mutiny and maintain shipboard discipline through terror, as sailors saw the horrendous costs of crossing the ships’ captain. Violence also prevented mutiny by dividing ships’ crews. Sailors who were different at all from most of the others – black sailors, French sailors onboard English ship, younger sailors, etc – were the often singled out for abuse by captains, and other sailors were permitted or encouraged to engage in similar mistreatment.9 The violence also served to dehumanize the sailors and to inure them to the violent and dehumanizing things their work required them to do the captives in the ships’ holds.

      Sailors passed on brutality to their enslaved captives, engaging in ritual humiliation, rape, and beatings both for sport and as part of their required duties of preparing the captives for sale. Paradoxically, the only real limit to what sailors were willing to do to slaves derived precisely from slaves’ status as commodified humans: “activity which reduced the financial value of the men, women, and children being transported for sale was restricted unless the safety of the ship was in question,” which meant that sailors generally tried to keep their abuse to acts which did not kill or leave permanent marks. This left a wide latitude for cruelty, however. Christopher details truly horrific treatment of captive women who gave birth aboard slave ships and of their babies.10

      Recent works on the Middle Passage are hard to read, emotionally speaking. Rediker suggests that this should be the case, if historians are to avoid what he calls the occlusion of “pervasive torture and terror” through overly quantitative approaches or other narratives which do not foreground the sheer horror of it all. In Rediker’s case, the result is a book which was “a painful book to write” and, Rediker hopes, “a painful book to read,” in the attempt to pierce the “violence of abstraction” which he sees as having “plagued the study of slavery from its beginning.”11

The Domestic Slave Trade

      Current scholarship considers the domestic slave trade an additional turning point between the era of the Atlantic trade and the decline of slavery, Morgan’s third and fourth turning points. This area is almost entirely absent from Morgan’s survey, other than a two line reference the domestic trade, understood as the sources of “new pressure and strains with increased hiring and sales.”12  Curiously, while the end of the international slave trade is of enormous importance for all of the I looked at, none of them give attention to this moment other than in cursory fashion. For the historians who work on the Atlantic trade, the closure of the trade marks the end of their periodization and so is dealt with in a summary fashion at the end of the real story these historians want to tell. Likewise, for historians of the domestic slave trade, the end of Atlantic trade happens just before the period they want to explore, and so the end of the Atlantic trade is also not a serious object of in-depth inquiry among either of the branches of slavery studies I looked at. 

      The Atlantic slave trade began to end in the 1770s, as slaveholding areas such as the Chesapeake increasingly began to recognize the profitability of selling slaves in competition with international slavers. These domestic slave exporters began to speak in favor of ending the international slave trade, though not for ending slavery. Congressional legislation ended the importation of slaves to the U.S. in 1808.13 The end of slave importation coupled with growing plantation agriculture created a higher demand for slaves from elsewhere in the U.S., leading to a massive domestic slave trade which Ira Berlin has termed a “Second Middle Passage.” Berlin writes that “[i]t now appears that the period of slavery’s most rapid change in mainland North America was not its first two hundred years but the half century preceding the Civil War.”14 During this era, “men and women whose forebears had reconstituted African life along North America’s Atlantic Coast were propelled across the continent in a Second Middle Passage.” Berlin argues that this “massive deportation displaced more than a million men and women, dwarfing the transatlantic slave trade that had carried Africans to the mainland.”15 

      After the importation of slaves ended, the domestic slave trade became central to the continued existence and expansion of slavery. As Adam Rothman writes, “slaveholding and slave trading were not discrete elements of the slave regime.” Rothman notes that many slaveholders tried to maintain this distinction, in order to deny to themselves and others that American “slavery was at its core a commercial system” of production as well as the purchase of commodified humans.16

      The Second Middle Passage was arguably less physically violent and certainly less slaves died. On the other hand, forced mobility – often multiple times over the course of slaves’ lives – added a new abuse to the evils of slavery, as families were broken up. For Rothman, the domestic slave trade served an important function in explaining the decline of slavery, Morgan’s fourth turning point. The growth of the slave trade undermined the old paternalist ideology in a very visible way, as slaves being traded were marched across the countryside in shackled lines called coffles, and in visible displays of sorrow from slaves as their families were broken up in auctions.

      Steven Deyle writes that it would be “hard to overemphasize the impact that this new traffic in human commodities had.” By 1860 the domestic slave trade had led to a “total value of slave property” of three billion dollars. This figure is based on “an average price of only $750 per slave,” which Deyle states is most likely too low, and so the real value of enslaved people accumulated during the Second Middle Passage was most likely much higher. Even by this low estimate, however, the value of property in slaves was still “roughly three times greater than the total amount of all capital invested manufacturing in the North and South combined, three times the amount invested in railroads, and seven times the amount invested in banks.” Given the scope of the domestic slave trade, Deyle argues that the trade has still “not received the treatment or emphasis it rightfully deserves” in historical scholarship.17

The Slavery Economy

      In his survey, Morgan faulted scholarship in the field for “minimizing the property element” of slavery. Morgan argued that the field needed more studies of the “oppression and subversions, objectifications and negotiations” of the slave market.18 The field has followed Morgan’s injunction.

      The scholarship on the slave trade, whether domestic or international, might be best described as taking an ethnographic approach to the economy. This is eminently appropriate, given that slaves were both commodities and human beings at the same time. This approach also strikes me as raising interesting questions and suggesting innovative approaches to anyone who is interested in the history of capitalism.

      Morgan wrote that earlier in the field:

“[h]ow Africans came to be enslaved used to be couched as a matter of race or class – either racial ideology identified Africans as potential categories for enslavement even before there was a need for slaves, or economic necessity mediated through class considerations largely accounts for the process.” 

Morgan noted that the field had begun to question the usefulness of that pair, race vs. class, while still seeking answer “how the process of debasement occurred” by and in which Africans were enslaved.19 Historians of slavery have continued in this direction since Morgan’s writing, emphasizing neither racial and cultural factors over class and economic factors nor the reverse. Many historians now instead see a single process of racial-and-class or cultural-and-economic factors. The unifying theme which these historians see is a process of commodification related to the history of capitalism.

      The relationship between capitalism and slavery has long been a vexed issue in history. It is striking that work in the field today both emphasizes capitalism to a large degree, but is not at all concerned with debates over whether or not slavery is a capitalist institution. This is a departure from earlier scholarship that addressed the capitalism and slavery connection. As Seth Rockman writes, “[f]or too long capitalism and slavery have been narrated as separate histories,” a separation that has obscured the historical ties “between American economic development and unfree labor.” For Rockman, the rise of “liberal capitalism in the early United States depended” on slave labor.20 Instead of setting out from a received understanding of capitalism in order to illuminate slavery, scholars today start from the slave societies that existed and use that research to expand or complicate our understanding of the history of capitalism. Rediker writes that “[t]he slave ship was a linchpin of a rapidly growing Atlantic system of capital and labor. It linked workers free, unfree, and everywhere in between, in capitalist and noncapitalist societies on several continents.”21

       For Rediker, slave ships functioned as a factory, one in which sailors worked “to create the commodity called “slave” to be sold in American plantation societies.”22 Emma Christopher concurs, writing that “slavery is, at base, a process,” one which involved the dehumanization of slaves through physical acts of violating and restraining slaves’ bodies as well as symbolic acts like shaving slaves’ heads and forced nakedness. This process helped reduce Africans to a salable thing in the eyes of those who captured, transported, sold, and purchased them, and was an attempt to break them to their enslaved condition.23

      Several historians of slavery have not only sought to expand our understanding of the history of capitalism, but in the process they have challenged received categories of historical analysis. These discussions can get quite densely theoretical. Stephanie Smallwood engages in an interrogation of what she takes to be the discursive conditions for commodification, as a step toward examining “the epistemological relationship between markets and “freedom” in the modern western world that the Atlantic system made.”24 Edward Baptist engages with Karl Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism and Sigmund Freud’s theory of sexual fetishism in his micro-history of an exchange of letters between to slave traders in which the men boast of their sexual abuse of female slaves.25 Walter Johnson’s “The Pedestal and the Veil” is a close reading of the first section and the final section of Marx’s Capital, Volume One, in order to show that Marx’s neglect of slavery limited the usefulness of Marx’s understanding of commodification. Johnson believes that criticizing this blind spot in Marx’s part helps get beyond stale debates about whether or not slavery was a capitalist institution, and opens up new ways that Marx might be made useful to historians. In many respects, these historians’ works are a model of theoretically sophisticated work which still remains source driven.

      Daina Ramey Berry, argues that the understanding of slaves as commodified was not limited to historians or to slaveholders. In keeping with the ethnography of the economy theme in the field, Berry details how slaves understood their value on the market, and sought to influence potential buyers in slave markets in the attempt to keep their families together. Berry narrates the story of a slave named Jeffrey who urged a buyer to also buy Jeffrey’s partner Dorcas, who Jeffrey argued was “worth $1200, easy” and so was a real “bargain.”26 Berry shows that slaves often had clear knowledge of their monetary value, and used this knowledge to the best of their ability to maneuver within their circumscribed environments.

Expansion and Synthesis

      If the field continues to follow the direction I discussed in my third section, understanding slavery as part of the history of capitalism and engaging with theoretical debates about the meaning of commodification, then there is the possibility for new connections with other scholarship on the meanings of freedom and labor being done in labor history and legal history, as well as scholarship which connects the history of slavery with the aftermath of slavery.27 These new connections could include work with other subfields in the discipline of history – such as work with migration historians comparing slaves’ forced migrations to other forms of coerced migration – as well as interdisciplinary work relevant to contemporary debates like those around reparations for the descendents of slaves as well as attention to trafficking and human slavery in the 20th century.28

      The theme of capitalism and commodification also allows a possibility for a new synthesis encompassing the history of the Atlantic and the domestic slave trade. I expect that a grand synthesis of the field will be some time in coming, and if one does appear it too will likely rendered out of date quickly, just as elements of Morgan’s synthesis written less than 5 years ago now appear dated. This is an indication of my earlier observation that the field of slavery is incredibly vibrant and productive. This will undoubtedly continue to be the case. Many of the recently published works in the field are scholars’ first books. Many historians of slavery are at the beginning of their publishing careers. Beyond the age of and career stage of scholars, slavery will likely remain a productive field of historical inquiry for as long as the legacies of slavery continue to shape the present.  

Works Cited:

Baptist, Edward. “‘Cuffy,’ ‘Fancy Maids,’ and ‘One-Eyed Men’: Rape, Commodification, and the Domestic Slave Trade in the United States.” in The Chattel Principle: Internal Slave Trades in the Americas. ed. Walter Johnson.  New Haven: Yale University Press,  2004.  

Berry, Daina Ramey. “‘We’m Fus’ Rate Bargain’: Value, Labor, and Price in a Georgia Slave Community.” in The Chattel Principle: Internal Slave Trades in the Americas. ed. Walter Johnson.  New Haven: Yale University Press,  2004. 

Berlin, Ira. Generations of Captivity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003. 

Christopher, Emma. Slave Ship Sailors and Their Captive Cargoes, 1730-1807. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006 

Deyle, Steven. Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. 

Deyle, Steven. “The Domestic Slave Trade in America.” in The Chattel Principle. ed. Walter Johnson. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2004.   

Ford, Lacy. “Reconsidering the Internal Slave Trade.” in The Chattel Principle. ed. Walter Johnson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004 

Johnson, Walter. “The Pedestal and the Veil: Rethinking the Capitalism/Slavery Question.” Journal of the Early Republic. 24 (Summer 2004): 299-308;  

Johnson, Walter. “Introduction: The Future Store.” in The Chattel Principle: Internal Slave Trades in the Americas. ed. Walter Johnson.  New Haven: Yale University Press,  2004.  

Johnson, Walter. Soul By Soul. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1999. 

Miller, Joseph C. and Holloran, John R. “Slavery: Annual Bibliographical Supplement 1999.” Slavery & Abolition v21 no3 (December 2000). 176-283.  

Miller, Joseph C. and Ridenhour, Thomas E. “Slavery: Annual Bibliographical Supplement 2001.” Slavery & Abolition v23 no3 (December 2002). 165-381.  

Miller, Joseph C. and Drogula, Fred K.”Slavery: Annual Bibliographical Supplement 2002.” Slavery & Abolition v24 no3 (December 2003). 145-240.  

Miller, Joseph C. and Drogula, Fred K.”Slavery: Annual Bibliographical Supplement 2003.” Slavery & Abolition v25 no3 (December 2004). 144-215.  

Morgan, Philip D. “African Americans.” in A Companion to Colonial America. ed. Daniel Vickers. Malden. MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003 

Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship. New York: Viking, 2007 

Rockman, Seth. “The Unfree Origins of American Capitalism.”339 and 361. in Cathy Matson. The Economy of Early America. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006.  

Rothman, Adam. “The Domestication of the Slave Trade in the United States.”in The Chattel Principle. ed. Walter Johnson. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2004.  

Smallwood, Stephanie. Saltwater Slavery. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007 

Stanley, Amy Dru.  “Wages, Sin, and Slavery.” Journal of the Early Republic. 24 (Summer 2004): 279-288 

Smallwood, Stephanie. “Commodified Freedom: Interrogating the Limits of Anti-Slavery Ideology in the Early Republic. Journal of the Early Republic. 24 (Summer 2004): 289-298 

Tadman, Michael. “The Interregional Slave Trade in the History and Myth-Making of the U.S. South.” in The Chattel Principle. ed. Walter Johnson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. 

Thurston, Thomas and Miller, Joseph C. “Slavery: Annual Bibliographical Supplement 2004.” Slavery & Abolition v26 no3 (December 2005). 421-516.  

Thurston,Thomas “Slavery: Annual Bibliographical Supplement 2005.” Slavery & Abolition v27 no3 (December 2006). 415-512.