Monday, August 5, 2013

Justin Roberts's "Slavery and the Enlightenment in the British Atlantic, 1750–1807"

Justin Roberts is an Assistant Professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he specializes in the study of slavery and the Atlantic World. He received his PhD from Johns Hopkins University.

Roberts applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Slavery and the Enlightenment in the British Atlantic, 1750-1807, and reported the following:
Page 99 is buried in the midst of the second chapter which is about the seasonal rhythms of agriculture and work routines on large slave plantations in the final decades before the abolition of the African slave trade. In these decades, planters drew on the ruthless rationalism and pragmatism of the British Enlightenment to “improve” their plantations. This section of chapter two is especially detailed and attentive to the kind of agricultural history that might be of most interest to specialists. Page 99 addresses some relatively dry material about the planters’ agricultural decisions but this kind of evidence, drawn from a massive collection of plantation accounts and correspondence, underscores two key points that are woven throughout this book. First, planters were business managers who tended to make calculated, profit maximizing and rational decisions about their plantations. There was nothing economically backwards about their business decisions. Plantation owners and their managers experimented often and adapted to changing market conditions. These decisions usually made plantations efficient and lucrative for the owners and productivity rates per slave rose consistently during this era of improvement but, at the same time, this improvement movement rarely benefited the enslaved. In most cases, the planters’ efforts to improve their estates meant more working hours and more rigorous methods of supervision and discipline for the enslaved Africans toiling in the fields. The second point is that work consumed the vast majority of slaves’ waking hours and we need to understand plantation management schemes and work routines if we want to understand the lives of the enslaved. They were, first and foremost, workers. How did slaves’ work? What were they made to do? When did they work? Who were they forced to work alongside and how did their daily jobs shape their communities? How did all this change over time? In the following chapters, my book examines the impact of these continually changing plantation management decisions and agricultural routines on the slaves’ bodies, their families and their communities in the early US and in the Caribbean.
Learn more about Slavery and the Enlightenment in the British Atlantic, 1750-1807 at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue