In This Review

Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America
Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America
By Ira Berlin
Harvard University Press, 1998, 497 pp.

By concentrating on slavery in North America from the early years of settlement through the Revolution, Ira Berlin restores historical depth and a human face to a field usually mired in angry polemic and narrow quantification. This rich and well-written narrative -- the best book on American slavery since Eugene Genovese's Roll, Jordan, Roll -- challenges traditional accounts. For almost 200 years, for example, few slaves grew cotton, lived in the Deep South, or embraced Christianity. As laborers on tobacco and rice plantations, skilled artisans in port cities, or soldiers along the frontiers, African-Americans struggled to create a world of their own in circumstances not of their making.

Berlin rejects the postmodernist view of slavery as a "social construction," arguing that historians must recognize slavery as any other historical phenomenon trapped by time and place. None of this will surprise Caribbean or Latin American historians, but it will be a revelation within the more insular world of U.S. specialists. Many Thousands Gone shows how we must place American history and the contemporary American dilemma of race and cultural heritage in the hemispheric and Atlantic context to comprehend fully America's peculiarities and uniqueness.