Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries Essay

Pages: 4 (1409 words)  ·  Style: MLA  ·  Bibliography Sources: 3  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Black Studies

¶ … Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America, by Ira Berlin. Specifically it will discuss Berlin's de-emphasizing the horrors of slavery. Berlin does seem to de-emphasize the horrors of slavery. In his Prologue he writes, "Although the playing field was never level, the master-slave relationship was nevertheless subject to continual negotiation [...] for while slaveowners held most of the good cards in this meanest of contests, slaves held card of their own" (Berlin 2). Berlin makes good points throughout his text, but they seem to contradict most other writings on slavery, and they seem to give too much power to the slaves, who essentially were powerless in their situation.

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Critics say Berlin's book de-emphasizes the horrors of slavery, but in fact, it relates a new history of slavery in the first two centuries of North American history, and indicates that slavery did indeed alter and transform during this time. For example, the author opens with a discussion of slaves sold to the colonists in Jamestown in 1619, something that is not well-known in the history of slavery, and makes it clear that slavery in the earliest history of the continent was not about race; so much as it was about servitude. Blacks labored alongside white indentured servants (slaves of another sort), and they enjoyed far more rights than slaves in later centuries did. The author notes, "When planters wished to discipline workers, whether black or white, they often used the courts; not until the next century did slaveowners presume that they were absolute sovereigns within the confines of their estate" (Berlin 32). This helps prove Berlin's point, that slavery changed throughout the centuries, and that slaves did "hold some of the cards" in their relationship with their masters, at least in the early days of slavery.

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Berlin's book maintains the slaves held power, and this is substantiated by the slave revolts that occurred in the early 19th century. One of these revolts, Nat Turner's Rebellion, is chronicled in the "Confessions of Nat Turner," a slave narrative first published in 1831. Turner and a band of blacks murdered at least 55 whites in the community of Richmond, Virginia. He says of the origins of the plan, "I saluted them on coming up, and asked Will how came he there, he answered, his life was worth no more than others, and his liberty as dear to him. I asked him if he thought to obtain it? He said he would, or lose his life. This was enough to put him in full confidence" (Bland 35). The group was fighting for liberty, and it put such fear into the white community that they responded by hanging all the culprits, and being much stricter with their slaves, fearful others would rise up against them. This only illustrates Berlin's point that the slaves did wield power over the whites, if only fear and worry.

This text opens up a whole new period in American history, and paints a very different picture of slavery than most historians acknowledge. Of course, Berlin is touching on a period that is not often looked at in most slave histories, because the horrors of the nineteenth century often outweigh the relative independence of the centuries before. His book opens up new areas of thought and discussion about black society in America and how it was formed, and it is quite interesting to see how slavery evolved from the 1600s to the 1800s.

The author illustrates how blacks came to America from a variety of locations in the early history of the country, and they banded together to form their own vibrant society. One of the things they did was turn to Christianity in large numbers after they settled in, especially in generations born in the U.S. He writes, "The links between Christian piety and certainty in eventual salvation on one hand and artisan skill and confidence in material advancement on the other grew steadily among the new converts" (Berlin 140). His explanation makes sense of another aspect of the slave community that often does not make sense, why they would accept the religion of the very masters that subjugated them. This turn to Christianity is another area of his… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries.  (2009, March 11).  Retrieved October 26, 2021, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/thousands-gone-first-two-centuries/8740

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"Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries."  Essaytown.com.  March 11, 2009.  Accessed October 26, 2021.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/thousands-gone-first-two-centuries/8740.