• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Of Human Bondage

Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study

by Orlando Patterson
Harvard University Press, 511 pp., $30.00

The founders of social science expressed a continuing interest in the origins and workings of human bondage. This interest can be traced from Montesquieu and John Millar in the eighteenth century to Tocqueville, Comte, Marx, Lewis Henry Morgan, Sir Henry Maine, Spencer, E.B. Tylor, Edward Westermarck, William Graham Sumner, and Max Weber. The ideology of moral and material progress, coupled with debates over the “anomaly” of chattel slavery in the New World, also led by the 1840s to the first systematic histories of Greco-Roman slavery and to theories explaining the institution’s decline and disappearance from Western Europe. In the major European languages scholars and popularizers produced thick volumes on the history of slavery from antiquity to modern times. However superficial or filled with Christian moralizing, this nineteenth-century literature recognized the importance and puzzling variations of an institution that has appeared from the time of the first written and ethnographic records and in virtually every part of the world.

But from the First World War to the mid-1950s (a period that set new records for the mobilization, degradation, and extermination of millions of unfree workers), slavery almost disappeared as a subject of central theoretical and historical interest. As Igor Kopytoff has recently pointed out, anthropology “almost completely forgot slavery” in this period when “so much of its modern world view was being forged.” According to the standard textbooks and general works, “the message has been that slavery is incomparably less important a phenomenon that compadrazco or the distinction between cross and parallel cousins.”1

For non-Marxian economists slavery raised few promising questions until 1957, when Alfred H. Conrad and John R. Meyer applied to historical data modern mathematical models and statistical techniques. 2 During the interwar decades American history was largely dominated by disciples of the “Progressive historians”—notably Frederick Jackson Turner and Charles Beard—who held that slavery had always been peripheral to the major forces and struggles that explained the rise of American civilization. Black slavery became a branch of “Southern history,” a field increasingly devoted to vindicating the Lost Cause, to exposing the imperialist motives of the capitalist North, and to reinterpreting the Civil War as an avoidable and calamitous American tragedy. Between 1918 and 1956 the monumental but frankly racist work of Ulrich B. Phillips, who was strongly influenced by Turner and was the star of the William A. Dunning school of pro-Southern historiography, remained the standard authority on American Negro slavery. The one sentiment shared by the historians who romanticized the antebellum South and the antiracist anthropologists who empathized with “primitive” and often slaveholding peoples was a common antipathy toward the modernizing, moralistic “civilization” that had brought on the First World War and global depression.

Even critics of Phillips and other racist scholars tended to accept the premise that black slavery was an aspect of the essentially southern or West Indian “racial problem.” The pioneering works of such scholars as Melville J. Herskovits, E. Franklin Frazier, John Dollard, and Gunnar Myrdal challenged the myths that helped to justify racial discrimination and segregation, but they were concerned only incidentally with the meaning of human bondage. Knowledge of the structure and dynamics of modern slavery thus depended to a large extent on Afro-American studies.

From 1916 to the 1960s The Journal of Negro History, published by the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, provided the main forum for a small group of scholars who defined the issues and did much to start the great revival of interest in slavery during the past two decades. A magazine for such black historians as Carter G. Woodson, William M. Brewer, Charles H. Wesley, Benjamin Quarles, and Eric Williams, the Journal was also one of the few outlets for white scholars who like many of the blacks were interested not only in the consequences of slavery and emancipation throughout the Americas but also in the interrelationship of slavery and other institutions. 3

As might be expected, Marxian writers took a leading part in attacking the plantation legend of southern racial harmony as well as in debating the periodization of slavery and serfdom in world history. It was not until the late 1950s, however, that they became less rigidly doctrinaire, adopting more flexible and subtle forms of Marxist theory, which opened new approaches to the history of slavery, from Japan and central Asia to precolonial Africa. This flexibility and diversification coincided with two developments in non-Marxian scholarship: the “desegregation” of southern and Afro-American history, actively promoted by such distinguished scholars as C. Vann Woodward, David Potter, and David Donald, and immensely accelerated by the civil rights movement; and the independent appearance in Europe of Charles Verlinden’s extensive work on slavery in medieval Europe and the studies by Joseph Vogt and others on slavery in classical antiquity.4

These converging and often conflicting approaches have led during the past twenty years to a veritable explosion of books, articles, and international symposia on slavery. Two years ago the most comprehensive “teaching bibliography” (which excludes popularizations) listed 3,259 books and articles on slavery, almost all published since the mid-1950s. While over 60 percent of these works deal with the Atlantic slave trade or black slavery in the New World, only 26 percent of the titles are limited to North America and an increasing number pertain to Africa, Asia, and premodern Europe.5 No doubt general readers, together with most social scientists, still identify “slavery” with the antebellum South. During the past few years, however, we have had four important books of essays dealing with slavery in Africa; Charles Verlinden’s second volume on slavery in medieval Europe, a work of 1,000 pages; Richard Hellie’s long study of slavery in Russia from 1450 to 1725; and A.C. de C.M. Saunders’s history of black slaves and freedmen in Portugal from 1441 to 1555.6 These are only a few of the recent works that should widen our stillparochial perspective.

Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death is in many ways the crowning achievement of the numerous works of scholarship of the past quarter-century. A Harvard sociologist who has published several novels as well as a detailed analysis of slavery in his native Jamaica, Patterson has read a staggering amount of the economic, historical, ethnographic, demographic, and theoretical literature on slavery in all parts of the world. No previous scholar I know of has gained such a mastery of secondary sources in all the Western European languages. With the help of research assistants, Patterson has even digested texts in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and medieval Welsh and Irish. From the systematic sample of 186 world cultures assembled by the anthropologist George P. Murdock, Patterson has selected sixty-six slaveholding societies on which a sufficient amount of historical or ethnographic data could be found. He has then coded and statistically analyzed the information on these societies, which range from ancient Babylonia to the Bella Coola of central British Columbia and the Tehuelche of Patagonia. In addition, Patterson has studied and collected data on all the “large-scale slave systems” from ancient Greece and precolonial Africa to early modern Korea and the New World. His attempt to view slavery as a global institution is thus far more ambitious and comprehensive than that of H.J. Nieboer, who in 1900 published the only existing work faintly comparable to Patterson’s.7

It should be emphasized that this is not a history of slavery. Patterson’s objective is “to come to a definitive statement of the fundamental processes of slavery, to grasp its internal structure and the institutional patterns that support it.” His abstract approach will doubtless irritate humanist historians who, in C. Vann Woodward’s words, hold “a profound respect for the varied particularity of human experience and a jealous regard for the precise integrity of time and place in the remembrance of things past.”8 Within four or five pages, Patterson skips from the Third Dynasty of Ur to Icelandic warriors, the Margi of northern Nigeria, ancient Athens and Sparta, eighteenth-century Jamaica, and the American Civil War. Specialists in every field are bound to pounce on errors and dubious generalizations. Patterson is fully aware of this and has at least fortified his assertions by drawing on the assistance of an imposing group of experts.

More serious objections can be made to his disdain for the nuances of specific historical settings, chronological developments, and the ways institutions become diffused. The societies he discusses are discrete units that can be coded and categorized but seldom interact or evolve. For the historian there is an inevitable distortion in juxtaposing the abstract characteristics of scores of societies separated by the greatest reaches of time and space, and then discovering striking “parallels” and “similarities” that may well be the artifacts of a sociological method that owes so much to the work of structural anthropologists. But historians’ methods involve distortions and fictions of a different kind, and Patterson should not be read with an eye to the “precise integrity of time and place.” Histories of slavery largely rest on unexamined and muddled concepts of what the institution is. The great merit of Slavery and Social Death is to offer a coherent theory that challenges deeply rooted assumptions and presents new points of departure for further research.

The book should also bury stale debates on the relative harshness of North American slavery, which some historians have attributed to racial prejudice or the coercions of unmitigated capitalism. Racial or ethnic distinctions characterized most of the slave systems Patterson studied, but this trait seems to have had no distinctive influence on the treatment of slaves or on the laws protecting them. Indeed, Patterson finds no significant correlations between the harshness of legal codes and the economic function of slaves, the material conditions of life, or the frequency of manumission. Patterson’s analysis of such variables helps to identify some of the exceptional features of North American slavery but also underscores the danger of idealizing premodern forms of servitude or of making generalizations about the harshness or leniency of any slave system. No system was static; all involved “a constant struggle between master and slave in the effort of the former to gain as much as possible for himself with the least possible loss, including the self-defeating loss of his slave, and the effort of the latter to minimize the burden of his exploitation and enhance the regularity and predictability of his existence.”

In view of the disparate institutions Westerners have classified as “slavery,” the more skeptical anthropologists have questioned the validity of the term as a concept that can usefully be applied to diverse cultures, especially when it carries the connotations of the New World plantation model. Patterson is fully aware that slaves often occupied a highly privileged status; that slave elites were sometimes valued as professional soldiers, palace guards, and imperial administrators; and that fathers or other heads of free families have sometimes had the right to kill or sell their children and have commonly received a bridesprice for what amounts to the transfer of dominion over a daughter. Patterson also acknowledges that black slaves in the nineteenth-century South generally enjoyed better material conditions than did contemporary industrial workers in Britain, and that although slavery is “one of the most extreme forms of the relation of domination,” it is by no means the only such form. Nevertheless, for all the rich empirical detail illustrating the diversity of master-slave relations, Patterson’s central purpose is to establish the “constituent elements” of the institution—the universal characteristics that distinguish slavery from other kinds of subordination.

  1. 1

    Slavery,” Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 11 (1982), pp. 207-227. As Kopytoff acknowledges, a few social scientists of the interwar period did produce important empirical and theoretical studies of slavery. In addition to William C. MacLeod’s articles on slavery among North American aborigines, one should especially note the work of H. Lévy-Bruhl, G. Landtman, A.A. Alwahed, and B.J. Siegel (in the 1940s).

  2. 2

    Essays published in The Economics of Slavery and Other Studies in Econometric History (Aldine, 1964).

  3. 3

    Two early books that revolutionized the study of New World slavery and that became justly famous by the early 1960s were C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (written in 1938 and reissued in a revised edition in 1962), and Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944. Orlando Patterson dedicated his first book on slavery to James and has frequently paid tribute to Williams’s brilliant and provocative study. I do not mean to imply that The Journal of Negro History ceased to be significant in the 1960s, but only that other scholarly journals began printing articles on similar subjects.

  4. 4

    Only a small part of this work has been translated. See Charles Verlinden, The Beginnings of Modern Colonization: Eleven Essays with an Introduction, translated by Yvonne Freccero (Cornell University Press, 1970); Joseph Vogt, Ancient Slavery and the Ideal of Man (Harvard University Press, 1975).

  5. 5

    Joseph C. Miller, Slavery: A Comparative Teaching Bibliography (Crossroads, 1977); J.C. Miller and D.H. Borus, “Slavery: A Supplementary Teaching Bibliography,” in Slavery & Abolition: A Journal of Comparative Studies, vol.1 (May 1980), pp. 65-110; J.C. Miller, “Slavery: A Further Supplementary Bibliography,” Slavery & Abolition, vol. 1 (September, 1980), pp. 199-258; Kopytoff, “Slavery,” p. 208. Miller’s forthcoming supplement brings the number of titles to approximately 4,000. The most valuable and extensive bibliographical essay on slavery is Orlando Patterson, “Slavery,” Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 3 (1977), pp. 407-449. See also David Brion Davis, “Slavery and the Post-World War II Historians,” Daedalus (Spring 1974), pp. 1-16.

  6. 6

    Claude Meillassoux, ed., L’Esclavage en Afrique précoloniale (Maspero, Paris, 1975); Suzanne Miers and Igor Kopytoff, eds., Slavery in Africa: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives (University of Wisconsin Press, 1977); Henry A. Gemery and Jan S. Hogendorn, eds., The Uncommon Market: Essays in the Economic History of the Atlantic Slave Trade (Academic Press, 1979); Paul Lovejoy, ed., The Ideology of Slavery in Africa (Sage, 1981); Charles Verlinden, L’Esclavage dans l’Europe médiévale, Tome deux: Italie—Colonies italiennes du Levant, Levant latin—Empire byzantin (Rijksuniversiteit te Gent, 1977); Richard Hellie, Slavery in Russia, 1450-1725 (University of Chicago Press, 1982); A.C. de C.M. Saunders, A Social History of Black Slaves and Freedmen in Portugal, 1441-1555 (Cambridge University Press, 1982).

  7. 7

    Slavery as an Industrial System (2nd edition, Nijhoff, The Hague, 1910).

  8. 8

    C. Vann Woodward, ed., The Comparative Approach to American History (Basic Books, 1968), p.16.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print