We already have a sizable shelf of comparative histories of slavery and race relations, subjects that have attracted special attention from the comparativists. Of these works most have been concerned with comparisons between Anglo-America and Latin America or the West Indies, all of them plantation societies with large populations of African origin and common experiences of slavery, emancipation, and racial adjustment. Early studies contained moral and admonitory preoccupations and stressed the contrast between rigidity and harshness toward slaves in North America and flexibility and mildness in Latin cultures. Later studies have modified the contrast, but have never entirely abandoned making invidious and admonitory comparisons.
George M. Fredrickson is the first to undertake a comparison of the two nations where the term “white supremacy” applies with special force—South Africa and the United States. Author of one of our best histories of white racial attitudes in America,1 he has also mastered South African history in preparation for this difficult task of comparison. His purpose is “to increase understanding of the processes examined rather than to make direct moral judgments.” These he leaves up to his readers. “Models” and “macrocosmic theory” he leaves up to social scientists and resolves to keep his study “within the bounds of an essentially humanistic discipline.” Another distinctive mark of Fredrickson’s method is his refusal to postulate any “fixed pattern” of race relations on either side—as some historians have done in comparing New World societies. Instead he sees these relations constantly changing within a perpetually shifting historical context. He is acutely aware of “enormously significant differences,” especially in demography, between the two countries.
White supremacy began in both countries in the seventeenth century with the domination of aborigines who were not black, and was preceded by “rehearsals” elsewhere on the part of the parent nations. In England the brutal subjugation of the “Wild Irish,” the Celtic “savages,” prior to colonizing Ulster, was such a rehearsal. At the same time the Dutch commercially exploited the East Indies with the milder motives of trade, without the need for expropriation of the land or extermination of the natives. The English repeated their experience in colonizing America, treating the Indians as they had the “wild Irish.” The Dutch repeated theirs at the Cape of Good Hope, where the Hottentots were not shoved aside or exterminated but were eventually deprived of their native culture and their biological identity through mixing.
Neither the English nor the Dutch found the indigenous populations suitable subjects for slavery or satisfactory solutions for labor supplies. Both resorted to importing lower-class surplus populations from the mother country as “indentured servants,” which amounted to temporary enslavement. At the Cape this phase was quickly ended by the arrival of black slaves from Angola, so that the Cape Colony “was virtually born as a multi-racial slave society,” somewhat like South Carolina a bit later. The transition to black slavery took longer in the Chesapeake colonies, where the enslavement of Christians of whatever color was nominally barred until 1667. At that…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.