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David Brion Davis’ Inhuman Bondage:  The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World is one of those rare books that manages to draw information from dozens, if not hundreds, of varying sources about an enormously complex subject and streamline them into a work that is incredibly readable and comprehensible while never simplifying its message or ignoring important aspects of this vital subject.  It’s a populist masterpiece in every sense of the word, and deserves as wide an audience as it can get.  Davis has synthesized vast amounts of work by many different authors — many of whom hold entirely different ideological and academic points of view — into a book that inspires a profound reassessment of our understanding of slavery.

No one comes across particularly well in Inhuman Bondage.  Almost every society for thousands of years of human history, even those for whom the practice had no economic function, engaged in the practice of slavery; black Africans, Arabs, Europeans and Asians all engaged willingly in the slave trade.  (Davis is especially good at pointing out the role most major religions played in exacerbating the damage done by slavery:  Jews, Muslims, and Christians all took part in excusing slavery, streamlining its operations, and deepening its racial qualities.)  But the book never lets us forget that it was not just slavery, but black slavery, that played such an essential part in building the New World.  Davis takes pains to explain that, contrary to the claims of even some abolitionists, slavery was not an aberration; it was an intrinsic part of the way western society was built.  “From the very beginnings, America was part black, and indebted to the appalling sacrifices of millions of individual blacks who cleared the forests and tilled the soil,” he writes, yet “the victims of the great sin of slavery became, in this subtle psychological inversion, the embodiment of sin.”

The ugly process of racialization is fully explored through a number of directions.  There were elements of ostracization in all periods of slavery; every society, even ones where slaves could eventually gain their freedom, or were racially similar or identical to their masters, made it a point to paint their slaves as others, as not full members of those societies.  From the very beginning, as Davis explores at some length, the primary lens by which societies viewed their slaves was that of animal breeders.  In order to overcome religious and social strictures against the mistreatment of fellow human beings, slaves had to be viewed as something like cattle.  However, over the centuries, as social and economic pressures made European society more and more dependent on the African slave trade, it became necessary to make slavery a specifically black institution, and to single out African tribes — who often had absolutely no common qualities — as a singular mass of creatures less than human.

This is how the “peculiar institution” of slavery developed in the United States, driving half the economy as well as driving a wedge in the national spirit that would only be settled by a long and brutal war.  No other country would experience black slavery in the same way as America, and nowhere would it be as vicious and as characterized by virulent racism.  But Davis doesn’t ignore the widespread impact that slavery had on the rest of the Western hemisphere:  the slave revolts of Haiti, the massive slave populations of the West Indies, the curious development of slavery in Brazil, and others are given their due.  Of particular interest is the way that slavery was the common element that drove the globalization of commerce in the 15th-19th centuries; in a disturbing glimpse of the global economy of the 20th & 21st centuries, he describes how slave labor not only sustained global trade in any number of commodities, but also how it fueled the development of banking and credit practices to fund the trade in slaves. In the entire history of Christian Europe, there was not one aspect of empire that was not accomplished on the back of slaves.

Though Inhuman Bondage is a book that can entirely change one’s view of slavery and its discontents, it’s as remarkable for what it excludes as for what it exposes.  Though it’s a work of great academic accomplishment, it never reads as dry or detached, and never loses perspective on the essential human tragedies that make up the slave trade.  Though it has a huge amount of ground to cover, it doesn’t repeat itself, and when it leaves something out, it’s not through error or oversight, but a deliberate choice to leave certain things outside the scope of the narrative.  And though it can hardly be called an uplifting work — if there’s anything more depressing than an account of human slavery, it’s an account of how deeply in denial one’s society is about human slavery — it is not a simple-minded attempt to place blame or point fingers, and the sections dealing with abolitionism show that in every period of human history, there have been those wise and brave enough to stand up to what is truly evil.

Marshaling logic, empathy, and a vast command of historical sources over a 438-page that seems much longer in how much information it contains, Davis has written an exhaustively researched, deeply felt, and passionately argued work on the still-raw subject of slavery that should be read by anyone interested in how the New World came to be what it is.  Every aspect of the slave trade is given attention, from its sexual repercussions (one reason for the modern polygamous nature of African society is that males were enslaved at a far greater rate than females, drastically lowering the value of women) to its impact on Native American tribes (he dismisses genocidal intentionality by pointing out that Europeans intended to use the natives as forced labor and were shocked when they began to die out in such great numbers due to disease).  It’s simply a magnificent book on a subject that our culture has yet to come to terms with in any meaningful way.



Feb. 13th, 2011 12:35 am (UTC)
I'll be reading that one, thanks for posting it!


flavored with age
Gun-totin', Chronic-smokin' Hearse Initiator
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Leonard Pierce is a freelance writer wandering around Texas with no sleep or sense of direction. If you give him money he will write something for you. If you are nice to him he may come to your house and get drunk.

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