January 13, 2005

Early American Social History Book Review

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TITLE: 'Black Majority; Negroes in Colonial South Carolina, from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion'
AUTHOR: Peter H. Wood
PAGE NO's: 346

The demographic black majority in South Carolina was not only statistically evident, but also visually apparent according to a visitor to the colony in the early eighteenth century who noted that ‘South Carolina was more like a Negro Country.’ It is for this very reason that Peter H. Wood bases his study of slave life on this region, which he feels has previously been overlooked by both colonial and black historians. To compensate for this historical void, Wood comprehensively discusses the important input that the black population had in the development and evolution of the colony. This book therefore offers a fascinating and refreshing perspective on the subject of slavery, whilst revealing relevant and interesting interdisciplinary information about demographic trends, disease and language patterns.

It is no surprise that Woods’ prize-winning ‘Black Majority’ has met with such acclaim, since despite being a fully informative scholarly work, it has also been written sympathetically, in a style which does not reduce its audience to academia. In an attempt to comprehensively cover early slavery in South Carolina, ‘Black Majority’ examines the period from 1670 to the end of the Stono Rebellion in 1739 by using a chronological but also semi-topical approach. This method creates four distinct periods of study, ‘African workers in the Carolina lowlands’, ‘the changing frontier’, ‘rising tensions’ and ‘a colony in conflict’ and this linear-thematic approach removes the stagnancy often associated with studies of this type. As the title of the book suggests, South Carolina (by 1708) had a numerically inferior white population, which is a critical piece of information when one thinks of the power balance between white and blacks during this period. However, whilst Wood explains the limitations placed upon the slaves by whites, he also gives detail about how this numerically dominant and yet power limited population significantly contributed to colonial society.

Wood proceeds to explain the skills and expertise brought by the West Africans to the New World such as rice cultivation, raising livestock, fishing, boating and husbandry. Furthermore a whole chapter is devoted to the biological importance of black labour in terms of resistance to sub tropical diseases. This chapter is an outstanding example of Woods’ ability to use interdisciplinary history especially in his thorough description of the meaning and importance of the sickle-cell trait. The first two sections of ‘Black Majority’ represent the early years of slavery in South Carolina, when blacks had more freedom and were valued for their various skills. Wood suggests that at this time, when the colony was still developing, blacks and whites toiled together to exist in the difficult beginnings of a fledgling colony. Blacks enjoyed greater trust and freedom; they were freely armed in periods of Indian war and were trusted in occupations requiring high mobility such as fishing or the Indian trade. This era is summarized profoundly by Wood when he states ‘common hardships and the continuing shortage of hands put the different races, as well as the separate sexes, upon a more equal footing than they would see in subsequent generations. (p.97).

The last two sections of the book show that although a black majority brought skills it also brought fear for white people. It is at this point that Wood changes tack and black resistance becomes a major theme. As Wood reveals the great changes that occur between the early years of slavery and those after 1708 it becomes clear that the race relations which had transpired would not continue or recur. Wood goes on to argue that the increasing threat posed by the sheer numbers of black slaves and the white fear of being overpowered caused an increasingly larger void between the two races, resulting in a harsher life for blacks. The section on rising tensions discusses the escalating problems of run-aways and slave insurrections and Wood provides large corroborative evidence in his extensive use of primary sources. It is particularly important in this section to make note of the extensive footnotes that Wood uses, which provide further invaluable information. This meticulous attention to detail continues throughout the final chapters of the book, which details the predictable path towards the Stono Rebellion.

Despite all its other virtues the most impressive factor about this piece of work is the variety and extent of primary sources and the interdisciplinary approach that Wood has used. Not only is Wood to be commended for his large variety of sources (from a numerous origins), but also for the way he has utilised them. Wood has carefully extracted and examined each source and has used his knowledge and research in areas of medical science, statistics and linguistics to tremendous effect. This is clearly displayed in his chapter about the linguistic origins of ‘Black English’ where he has drawn upon eighteenth-century records of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts for linguistic data. Wood skilfully intersperses this detail into his argument and this makes for very interesting reading and what I consider to be a comprehensive and complete study of the colonial period in South Carolina. Admittedly, Wood has not included much information about free blacks at this time or the divisions within slave society itself. However, this is more than compensated for with the other themes which Wood does discuss.

‘Black Majority’ is possibly one of the most useful and readable books that I have read during this course. It offers a refreshing and alternative approach to an area of history that is little covered. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in South Carolina, or black history during the seventeenth and early eighteenth century because unlike so many academic authors, Wood has managed equilibrium between statistics and description, which consequently makes for excellent reading. If you don’t read this book then you really are missing out.

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