Philip Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry, 1998

Subjects: Agriculture, Slavery.

Philip Morgan's extensively researched and exhaustively detailed tome aims to compare and contrast the formation and social structure of the two predominant slave societies on the North American continent - the Chesapeake and the Lowcountry. Taking a page from the structuralism of the French Annales school (Braudel is explicitly mentioned a few times), Morgan begins by examining how the geographic and meteorological conditions of the Chesapeake and Lowcountry led to the choice of tobacco and rice as regional staple crops respectively, and how those staple crops in turn affected everything from slaves' work schedule to conception of time to slave opportunities (diversification vs. specialization) to slave work modes (ganging vs. tasking.)

Part II of Morgan's work explores the nest of contradictions at the heart of white-black relationships, be they among master, slave, or poor white "plain folk," and how the contours of these relationships also flowed directly from the care and preparation of each area's staple crop. Examining such cross-cultural phenomena as violence, sex, trade, and religion, Morgan notes how the stern patriarchalism of seventeenth-century masters gave way to a paternalism with "greater softness, more reciprocity, [and] less authoritarianism," and how a considerable degree of interracial contact (particularly in the Chesapeake, where whites and blacks more often worked side by side) eventually gave way to a much more segregated and racially static society, due to a number of reasons that included the influx of African-born slaves and the gradual rise of a racist consciousness among whites.

Part III, perhaps the most ambitious section of Slave Counterpoint, attempts to explore the nascent slave cultures in both regions. Morgan examines black slaves' - both Creole and African - relations with each other and with other key groups (such as Indians and free blacks), the family and community makeup of slave households, and the language, music, entertainment, and religion that sprang up among the slaves in both the Chesapeake and the Low Country. As before, Morgan grounds his discussion of slave culture in the social and economic realities of staple crop production.

Throughout, Morgan notes the similarities and keenly dissects the differences between these two slave societies. He makes a strong case - perhaps too strong - that "work was the most important determinant of a slave society," that these distinctions are inherent to the vicissitudes of tobacco and rice production. As a result, Lowcountry slaves enjoyed greater autonomy, more social and familial stability, more opportunities for specialization, more chances for free hours (if they completed their tasks), and a more uniquely African and less syncretic culture than their neighbors in the Chesapeake. But they were also forced to contend with higher mortality, more brutal work, and less (master-donated) food and clothing than the slaves of Virginia and Maryland.

This is an interesting book, even if the "Agriculture is destiny" tack is too overly predetermined for my liking. It's got the massive scope and attention for detail of Kulikoff's work, yet manages to keep a strong voice throughout. It's got the incisive regional contrasts of Jack Greene's Pursuits of Happiness, without the explicit attempts at paradigm-shifting showing through. Throughout this long, long book, I was struck both by Morgan's ability to hold my interest consistently and by his continued capacity to draw quite interesting conclusions about the primacy of staple crop production in all facets of life (to take just one example, I particularly liked the graph that compared peak slave runaway times with the growing schedules of tobacco and rice.)

Cross-posted at http://www.kevincmurphy.com/morgan.html.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License