Published:  12:00 AM, 08 January 2017

Haunting screams from Afro-American Slaves

Haunting screams from Afro-American Slaves American Slavery, American Freedom by Edmund S. Morgan, publisher - W.W. Norton & Company, reprint edition - 2003
Mahfuz Ul Hasib Chowdhury excavates the real dolor of slavery in the history of America

Edmund S. Morgan (1916-2013) was an American historian with a scholarly range of masterful publications on American colonial history.  He had been Professor Emeritus in Yale University, USA since 1955 till 1986. He supervised around 60 doctoral dissertations during his career as a Professor of History in Yale University. Edmund Morgan, born in 1916, studied in Harvard University. In American Slavery, American Freedom, Edmund Morgan names the concurrent growth of serfdom and liberty "the central paradox of American history." The book explains how a certain clan of people developed a devotion to the freedom of humans exhibited by the leaders of the American Independence War and simultaneously stipulated and kept up a method of labour that declined the appeal of human rights for centuries until slaves became independent as a result of the American Civil War. This book makes frequent references to the socio-political scenario of Virginia during the 17th century. Virginia's geographic dimension and its role in financing the American Independence War with money procured from slave-grown tobacco caught Morgan's vision. Slave-holding Virginians led the war against British colonial forces and took up the role of leadership of America. American Slavery, American Freedom deserves its eminence as one of the most insightful texts on American history.

Edmund S. Morgan (1916-2013) was an American historian with a scholarly range of masterful publications on American colonial history.  He had been Professor Emeritus in Yale University, USA since 1955 till 1986. He supervised around 60 doctoral dissertations during his career as a Professor of History in Yale University. Edmund Morgan, born in 1916, studied in Harvard University. In American Slavery, American Freedom, Edmund Morgan names the concurrent growth of serfdom and liberty "the central paradox of American history." The book explains how a certain clan of people developed a devotion to the freedom of humans exhibited by the leaders of the American Independence War and simultaneously stipulated and kept up a method of labor that declined the appeal of human rights for centuries until Afro-American slaves became independent as a result of the American Civil War. This book makes frequent references to the socio-political scenario of Virginia during the 17th century. Virginia's geographic dimension and its role in financing the American Independence War with money procured from slave-grown tobacco caught Morgan's vision. Slave-holding Virginians led the war against British colonial forces and took up the role of leadership in America. American Slavery, American Freedom deserves its eminence as one of the most insightful texts on American history. In the first section of the book, Edmund Morgan elaborates his findings about the origin of the inimical relations between the colonists settled in Virginia and the Native American tribes and the production of tobacco as a lucrative crop. 

Antagonism between the colonists from Britain and the indigenous tribes began at the infamous Roanoke outpost. The Virginia Company, unlike the founders of Roanoke, did not want to rely on the Native Americans for subsistence and when the English King placed the company in charge of itself, its leaders did not envision Red Indians as part of the colony, not even as slaves. Virginia subsequently suffered a labor shortage. The poor disposition of immigrants, including gentlemen unwilling to work, contributed to Virginia's failure to feed itself. The company decided to give land to some planters in an effort to encourage investment and productivity. These new landowners quickly began growing tobacco despite the company's disapproval. A more lenient form of government kept the company away from enforcing levies that curtailed tobacco production. Meanwhile, armed battles went on horridly between the colonists and the Red Indians. An investigation after a brutal massacre revealed the colonists' high toll of casualties. In 1624, the king reinstated his authority over the colony. Various diseases reduced Virginia's population. Most tenants, serfs and employees died before America became independent. Afro-American Serfs in Virginia worked under worse circumstances and suffered more inhuman regulations than those in Britain. Virginians bought and sold slaves in the same way that Englishmen traded animals. Wealth was accumulated in the hands of a few people. The Virginia Company in London went bankrupt as many of its officials in America became too affluent to continue their jobs at the company.

Wealthy Virginians secured freedom from the crown and the company as conditions in the colony and the tobacco market changed, Morgan writes in the book's second section.  The Virginians' demand for labor temporarily dropped when tobacco prices decreased in 1630. However, the end of the tobacco bonanza failed to slow down English migration to Virginia.  Life expectancy and standards of living increased boosting Virginians to regard the colony as a permanent home rather than a temporary resort. The Virginia Assembly, created under the company's control, wanted to place its authority under the king. The king refused to allow the assembly to continue, but Virginians worked out ploys to flout the king's orders.  The assembly's power increased during the English Civil War.  In 1660, English Parliament instructed all tobacco from the colonies to be dispatched to England so that the English monarch could earn taxes and the merchants could make profits. In the meantime, there were less than five hundred black slaves in Virginia during 1650. A lot of slaves were liberated at old age and they showed no interest to come back to work as peasants.

The third chapter of American Slavery, American Freedom focuses on severe dissatisfaction, internal disputes and clashes within the white colonists. Slavery elongated and rules got tougher as more serfs were employed. Land prices mounted as more numbers of liberated slaves sought to buy and own assets. Slaves disengaged after 1660 had trouble finding land.

Landlords acquired spacious plots to rent and made land even scantier. Freed slaves viewed Red Indians as rivals for land.  If Red Indians harmed white people's property then others from the hostile tribes were nabbed and sold as slaves to different rich people. Discontent spread across Virginia.  English ships carried delinquent men, even criminals to Virginia. The increasing number of tormented and evicted people persuaded the colony to pin down further strictness on the landowners' power to vote after 1670. The massive number of liberated slaves loomed like a threat in a region where all grown-up guys were known to have firearms. The grievances of the disoriented inhabitants burst out into blood-spilling confrontations and violent face-offs between colonists and the governor during a number of rebellions in 1676.  Nathaniel Bacon and his supporters wanted the governor to approve incursions against the Red Indians. Edmund Morgan writes that the crystallized message of the rebellion was that "resentment of an alien race might be more powerful than resentment of an upper class."

In the fourth and final chapter of the book, Edmund Morgan interprets several aspects regarding the mutation of Virginia's labor force from workers to serfs, the ominous rise of racism, the event of poor Virginians coming on friendly terms with wealthy whites and the initial sparks of the war against British colonists. The gradual expansion of Virginia's labor code and racial adversities paved the way to a society of slaves. The white dwellers of Virginia endorsed slavery through buying slaves instead of hiring employees, according to Edmund Morgan. Slavery, according to most of the findings by Edmund Morgan, prevailed in Virginia since 1619, but it wasn't worth the price because of the high mortality rate of the slaves. However, later on circumstances changed and half of the labor force was enslaved by the end of the 17th century. The first official recognition of slavery was issued in 1661. Slaves giving birth to kids made slave trade a booming business enterprise. The problem was that slaves showed reluctance to work. Virginians deliberately tortured slaves to terrify them.  Well-off Virginians instilled racism to resist any compassion or humanitarian ties between destitute whites and African slaves. Virginians further maltreated slaves by slapping taboos on baptism of black folk, forbidding physical intercourse among the races, and, in 1691, the white Virginian policymakers made emancipation of slaves illegal. Edmund Morgan presents the opinion that slavery helped insolvent whites by reducing the number of liberated slaves vying for land and by obtaining quirks from the wealthy class. As the progress of the ordinary planters gained pace, they began to trace out common interests with landlords. This pact between the white people of opposite social standings later on triggered the spirit of republicanism.

Slavery became such a glaring stigma that the Americans had to fight a fierce war during 1861 to 1865 to eradicate it from their country. Since then America has been a state vindicated from the jinx of serfdom. But racism, the wicked offspring of slavery, has been an outrageous peril in America till today. So, the dark stains of bygone slavery are not yet entirely erased from the visage of America. Therefore, freedom and slavery appear to be two ambivalent entities, two dichotomous forces in the present day United States too.


The reviewer is a columnist  for The Asian Age


Leave Your Comments



Latest News


More From Bookshelf

Go to Home Page »

Site Index The Asian Age