Mar 2, 2008

Reviewed Books: The Making of New World Slavery; Africans in Colonial Mexico

The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800
Blackburn, Robin
London: Verso, 1997

Africans in Colonial Mexico: Absolutism, Christianity, and Afro-Creole Consciousness, 1570-1640
Bennett, Herman L.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003

Scholars of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the history of Africans in the New World follow a wide variety of methodological and philosophical approaches to their work, and students interested in these fields and related subfields will find such academic heterogeneity in Robin Blackburn’s The Making of New World Slavery and Herman L. Bennett’s Africans in Colonial Mexico. Blackburn produced a comprehensive economic narrative of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, tracing the origins of this epoch of mass human enslavement and relocation from its Greco-Roman roots through the early eighteenth century. Bennett, whose text is much narrower in scope, examined the lives of African slaves in New Spain, using state and ecclesiastical records to elicit details of the ways in which Africans in colonial Mexico utilized institutional structures to their own benefit.

Lurking in the background of both books is a pair of provocative theories that continue to influence the historiography of New World slavery. In the 1947 text Slave and Citizen, Frank Tannenbaum posited that Spanish legal traditions and – in particular, Catholicism – created a more humane form of slavery, and that greater socioeconomic opportunities existed for slaves in Spanish America than in the Protestant English colonies. With their innovative 1976 work The Birth of African-American Culture: An Anthropological Approach, Sidney Mintz and Richard Price argued that Afro-American culture was a unique creolization of African and European traditions, and that slaves were not “stripped” of inherited culture simply through the process of enslavement. Both of the reviewed texts – like virtually all writing on New World slavery – address in some fashion the arguments of Tannenbaum, Mintz, and Price, and readers will find that both authors are cognizant of the aforementioned literature.

Blackburn approaches the topic from a neo-Marxist perspective, arguing that the slave trade had become “marginal or non-existent” in Western Europe by the advent of the Age of Discovery, and that it was the commercial impetus of private interests that prodded European colonial powers to develop political structures to accommodate and regulate the slave trade. Blackburn implicitly dismissed the Tannenbaum thesis, noting that – while some Spanish slave conditions were less exploitative and abusive than others – the Spanish monarchy “permitted the takeoff of a slave plantation economy in Brazil” during the period of the dual monarchy with Portugal. Blackburn, while not specifically addressing the Price-Mintz thesis, nonetheless shares the view that a creolization occurred among African slave communities. The “lexicons of the patois and Kréyoles,” the author asserted, contained “important African elements” interspersed with contributions from European and Native American languages. In the case of religion, Blackburn argued that the process of creolization owed much to the slave-master dialectic, and that slaves were “still informed by an African matrix which was at variance with the repressed personality and utilitarian philosophy of so many of their owners.”

Bennett positions Africans in Colonial Mexico not as a simple refutation of the Tannenbaum thesis, but rather seeks to find accommodation and common ground with the ideas put forth in Slave and Citizen. In Bennett’s view, Africans in Mexico benefitted from the presence of the institution of the Roman Catholic Church, which is in keeping with Tannenbaum, but instead he argues that “Africans and creoles utilized Christian regulatory practices, especially the marriage position, to affirm identities meaningful to them.” It was not necessarily the ameliorating influence of the Church on the institution of slavery that produced more favorable conditions for Africans in Mexico, argued Bennett, but rather the ability of Africans to become “adept at manipulating their conflicting status as chattel, as vassals, and as Christians.”

Similarly, Bennett did not develop his book in a way that rebuts or affirms the Price-Mintz thesis, but instead the author created a nuanced view of the process of creolization. The factors involved in creolization, Bennett argued, included much more than such items as language, beliefs, and kinship practices:
Creole culture included the customs, laws, and institutions that upheld the larger social structure and came to include an ability to navigate the various institutions of absolutism… Eventually, bozales learned to enlist the protection of crown and clergy, who, as representatives of the Spanish sovereign, often stood at odds with individual patricians.
Both authors address the rise of race as a defining characteristic in the European justification for enslaving Africans, though Bennett and Blackburn present different perspectives on the implications of the creation of racial identity. For Blackburn, approaching the topic from a neo-Marxist perspective, European notions of racial hierarchy were economic in nature, and the author argued that plantation owners found that a “construction of the economic [system] based on racial exploitation served their purposes well.” Moreover, noted Blackburn, the evolution of racial hierarchies also served to reinforce white social structures:
Racial fear was probably as important as white privilege in rallying the support of independent white smallholders. Fear and privilege, both constituted with reference to black slaves, possessed the ability to “interpellate” white people, making them see themselves as slaves might see them – that is, as members of a ruling race – and thus to furnish them with core elements of their social identity.
Bennett – while acknowledging that persons of African descent occupied an inferior place in the increasingly racialized social hierarchies that emerged in the New World – instead focused on the opportunities that Africans in New Spain possessed for negotiation and self-fashioning. The institution of the Catholic Church, the author argued, “enabled Africans and their descendants to manifest their recently constructed New World identities in the Christian república.” Moreover, noted Bennett, emerging racial categories such as ladino or mestizo pardo sometimes offered Africans of mixed ancestry an opportunity to redefine themselves in ways that offered socioeconomic incentives.

The Making of New World Slavery is a useful text for scholars desirous of understanding the economic underpinnings of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, though Blackburn’s insistence upon the primacy of economic factors sometimes obscures the ability of African slaves to engage informs of resistance. Bennett’s Africans in Colonial Mexico provides an examination of an often-overlooked dimension of New World slavery, and the author makes a convincing argument that the structures of the Catholic Church provided African slaves with a vehicle by which to improve their lot in life. Blackburn’s broad overview and Bennett’s narrow focus also serve as methodological complements to each other, giving readers who lack extensive knowledge of the historiography of New World slavery a pair of books that bring a multiplicity of perspectives and approaches to the topic.


microdot said...

This is an area of history that I have been reading about, from a French perspective and the only books I have found that deal with it are written in French.
Do you know of any works in English that deal with the French Slave Trade and the amassing of fortunes in Bordeaux?
Bordeaux was one of the centers of the slave and sugar trade which made it for a while the wealthiest city in Europe.
I have read about it in other histories, but I haven't found anything that relates to it specifically.

historymike said...

Hi Microdot:

Here are some books you might want to check out:

Women and Slavery in the French Antilles, 1635-1848. Bernard Moitt.

The Diligent: A Voyage Through the Worlds of the Slave Trade. Robert Harms.

French Anti-Slavery: The Movement for the Abolition of Slavery in France. Lawrence C. Jennings.

Society and politics in revolutionary Bordeaux. Alan Forrest.

Slavery and the French revolutionists (1788-1805. Anna Julia Cooper.

Africans in Colonial Louisiana: the development of Afro-Creole culture in the eighteenth century. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall.

microdot said...

Wow! Thank you Mike!
This is an era of French history that really was only seriously sddressed in general in the last 10 years.

Kathleen said...

Thanks, just what I need, more books to read. Although I started reading this post simply because I saw the word "Mexico," the other book also sounded quite interesting.

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