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What We Didn’t Know About Slavery

Neither Black Nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States

by Carl Degler
Macmillan, 302 pp., $3.25 (paper)

Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713

by Richard S. Dunn
Norton, 379 pp., $2.45 (paper)

White, Red, and Black: The Seventeenth-Century Virginians

by Wesley Frank Craven
University of Virginia, 114 pp., $5.75

Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion

by Peter H. Wood
Knopf, 326 pp., $10.00

Flight and Rebellion: Slave Resistance in Eighteenth-Century Virginia

by Gerald W. Mullin
Oxford University Press, 219 pp., $2.50 (paper)

For six or eight generations writers have been pegging slavery up and down on a moral scale that buckles alarmingly with the temperature of the social issue that slavery entailed. So long as the peculiar institution was a contemporary reality the question was absolute. Was slavery a moral institution, or was it not? Abolitionists saw in it “the sum of all villainies” because it encouraged every other sin. But defenders of slavery pointed to Holy Writ, where they found ample precedent but no condemnation, and widely advertised their conclusion that God had His purposes: slavery was a positive good.

But once slavery became history, the question attained a degree of sophistication. The question of the morality of slavery, being settled in the negative, gave way to another: how repressive was slavery in practice in the United States? The ramifications of the question in this form were intensely political and contemporary. A suitably negative answer could be used to explain the quality of contemporary family life in the black community (judged to be bad), the survival of racial hostility (judged to be unchanging), and as a check on our progress (or lack thereof) in approaching a healthy biracial society. In this form the question automatically introduced a comparative dimension. Slavery in the United States was more or less repressive, more or less benign, in comparison to what?

Brazil has been, for twenty-five years, the main target of reference. Since the simultaneous appearance in 1946 of an English translation of Gilberto Freyre’s powerful work, The Masters and the Slaves, and a short book by Frank Tannenbaum entitled Slave and Citizen, slavery in this country has been contrasted, usually to its disadvantage, with Latin American slavery in general, and Brazilian slavery in particular.

The Tannenbaum-Freyre argument, simply put, is that the institutions of the Portuguese settlers, especially the Roman Catholic Church and Roman civil law, were favorable to the recognition of the basic humanity of the slave. The English colonists, on the other hand, built their slavery out of the whole cloth, there being no legal precedents in English common law, pro or con, to hamper them, and they built it to suit a young, bustling, and extractive capitalist economy. Because of the separation of church and state, the Protestants, of however good will, could do little to hinder the inevitable pressures to debase the slave and his family and to strip them of every human right. The idea was persuasive, because it seemed to explain so much about contemporary differences in the two worlds: there was Brazil with a fluid racial pattern based as much on economic status as on color, while the United States retained well into the twentieth century a rigid caste system based on race.

The Tannenbaum-Freyre thesis has had its advocates and attackers on both sides of the border from the start, and Carl Degler’s Neither Black Nor White is but the latest recruit. It is likely to be the last for some time, however, because it deals so objectively and comprehensively with all the questions raised by this particular comparison. The work is good history and good sociology in that it explores the contemporary facts and ambiguities of Brazilian race relations more thoroughly than others have done.

For a number of years scholars in this country and in Brazil, especially those of the Sao Paulo school, have been chipping away at the Tannenbaum-Freyre thesis, the assumption that institutions alone could have affected the course of history on two raw and malleable frontiers so drastically. What did laws mean if they had to be passed over and over? And what could priests do when they were so few and the friendly dependents of the master class to boot? Like others before him Degler quickly disposes of the role of the Church and law as defenders of the slave and outriders of freedom: “Insofar as physical treatment was concerned,” he writes, “it would seem that Brazilian slavery was less likely than United States slavery to give either the master or the slave an awareness of the Negro’s humanity.” Mortality was high in Brazil, and suicide a serious problem. Averring that he never saw illustrations in the literature of slavery in the United States of slaves wearing masks, he pointedly suggests that to put a mask on a slave, as was done in Brazil, is very like muzzling a dog.

But the Tannenbaum-Freyre assumption was easier to dispose of than the stubborn fact that had inspired Tannenbaum’s original investigation. Why had life after slavery assumed such different aspects in the two countries? Brazil never developed a system of rigid segregation of the sort that replaced slavery in this country, and blacks of Latin countries retained much more of their African culture. Degler’s explanation hinges on a single important circumstance of great significance for the future of blacks in freedom. In Brazil manumission was easier, because of demographical and economic circumstances, while in the United States it was hedged about with discouragement and difficulties, especially in the nineteenth century, after most avenues to freedom were systematically closed.

The consequence was the development in Brazil of a large class of free mulattoes, who stood waiting, in effect, as a community for freed slaves to join at the lower end of the economic scale after manumission became general. Degler nurses no illusion that Brazil is, or ever was, a color-blind society. Indeed Brazilians appear to be very aware of the significance of degrees of blackness or whiteness. But that is just the point. The gradations from one color to the other were so thickly populated that moving a notch or two up the social scale, by means of economic or intellectual achievement or a “good” marriage, was by no means impossible. “The strict and sharp line between the races so characteristic of the United States is absent there; always there are the individual exceptions, the mulatto escape hatch, or the ‘bleaching’ power of class.”

But why did no mulatto “escape hatch” develop in the United States? Degler’s explanation owes little to religion, law, or ideology, but much to contrasting historical experiences and the demographical divisions between races and sexes at significant periods in the histories of the two countries. Mulattoes quickly appeared in both countries, but in mainland North America they were promptly defined “out” of the white world, and into the black, as Negroes. This happened not only because of excessive fear (and consequent hatred) of blacks, but because blacks were in the minority, and it was feasible to handle them thus. In Brazil it was not. The Portuguese also began with legal restrictions on intermarriage, but such laws “were not enforced or rendered unenforceable by local conditions.”

The law simply could not keep pace with miscegenation in a land where slaves were being imported at the rate they were in Brazil, and where whites, mostly male, were in a small minority in an overwhelming black and mulatto population. In the English colonies of the mainland, slaves and their offspring were always a minority in the total population, constituting only 19 percent in 1790, and nearer to 10 percent most of the time. With the possible exception of New Orleans, no “place” developed here for the mulatto as a social class; therefore every pressure of society worked to foreclose for him anything approximating the economic, legal, and social position available in Brazil.

In only a few particulars does Degler move away from his steady emphasis on demographic causation. In answering why Englishmen were more shamefaced about their unions with black women, and less ready to grant their mulatto offspring legal and social standing, Degler reminds us not only of the relatively small numbers of Brazilian white women at the formative stage of the slave system, but of their legal and social inferiority when compared with Englishwomen. These last were, as Degler says, “a quite different breed,” accustomed to approximately equal rule within the home, freer to speak their piece on all subjects, and even to engage in some trades. It amazed a German visitor to North America to see what “great liberties and privileges” women had, and he was plainly shocked that in a Pennsylvania court a mere serving girl had won a suit against her master for getting her pregnant.

These pushy Englishwomen were largely successful in getting their husbands’ adultery out of the house or, failing that, under the rug. They often named a black competitor in divorce suits, and they looked sourly on mulatto offspring. They wanted the result of miscegenation called bastardy, and had their way. In Brazil the woman’s position was so low, even in the home, that one observer said she “acquired a character of sullenness and timidity that disfigured her like a slave, in the midst of every repression and prohibition.” It was improbable that Brazilian women could exercise an effective brake to the demographic forces creating the “mulatto escape hatch” in a freewheeling, miscegenating society.

Two further cultural factors are introduced by Degler as supporting the population trends, outlined so forcefully as originally creating the status of those who were “neither black nor white.” The Portuguese heritage lacked the “work ethic” English Protestants were bringing to the New World. The Portuguese gained no social status for the performance of physical labor, and were not attracted to a whole range of trades and skilled crafts the English eagerly sought. Since Brazil no less than other societies required these services, the mulattoes stood ready to push the unresisting whites aside. The training and skills they required then lifted them into an economic position that paralleled their social life between the worlds of white and black.

English artisans had considerable success in restricting slave labor to plantation agriculture. The implications for the transit of blacks to free status are clear. In Brazil mulattoes had entered dozens of trades and crafts in force, and before the general emancipation, while in the United States this entry was largely blocked by whites sufficiently numerous to man the posts. Their effective political strength in protecting their interests suggests the further consideration that the working-class English, as colonists and later as citizens of the young republic, exercised more influence on the polity than their fellows in Brazil were able to do. An open competitive society therefore permitted and encouraged a popular expression of racial hostility based on economic interest.

But even after accounting for the social role of women, and the more democratic political institutions of the English, it is clear that Degler regards these factors as supportive of and not as equal to demographic factors and the timing of events. The total historical experience of the two countries was more important than institutions or ideology in the widely contrasting racial patterns that have emerged in Brazil and the United States.

What Degler has said about Brazil may not be entirely new to students of Latin American history, and some scholars of slavery in the United States may feel some restlessness about the author’s consistent minimization of ideology, culture, and psychology at the expense of demography. Though economic forces are clearly at the bottom of several of Degler’s postulations, he does not develop them chronologically in his argument. And yet it is not along these lines that the ultimate assessment of Neither Black Nor White must rest. Degler’s argument encompasses the entire route from slavery to freedom in the two largest slave-holding countries of the West, and some major trends of necessity had to give way to his delineation of the central role of the mulatto in the contrast he depicts. A discussion of evolutionary factors along the time line in the two countries might have been desirable, but Degler succeeds admirably in bringing logic and common sense to the main question that has dominated historians for twenty-five years. His synthesis of the Latin scholarship with what is now known about slavery in this country is lucid, and stands up to several close readings.

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