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Two Views of Slavery

This paper compares and contrasts two books about slavery on the Eastern Shore of Virginia in the late 17th Century. (4 pages; two sources; MLA citation style)

Introduction

Two books, one by Betty Wood (The Origins of American Slavery) and the other by Breen and Innes (Myne Owne Ground), describe the conditions of blacks on the Eastern Shore of Virginia in the late 17th Century. This paper discusses the books briefly.

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How are the Arguments Different/Similar?

The arguments used by the authors are similar in one sense: they repeatedly point out that it is unfair to view slavery from our modern perspective. Instead, they remind us that for the people of the period, slave owing was a matter of economic survival, and set their works in that context.

The greatest difference lies in the authors’ choices with regard to the amount of material they cover. Wood discusses the question of slavery from a large, global perspective; Breen and Innes concentrate on the specific area of Virginia that is of interest to them.

The Most Convincing or Illuminating Argument; Why?

Although both books do a good job of explaining why the English colonists felt slavery was necessary (they needed workers for their farms—tobacco in particular), that was not the aspect that I found most intriguing.

In Wood’s book, it was her decision to ask a very fundamental question that seemed most illuminating to me: “Why did the English colonists feel able to enslave people of West African descent? … What was it about West Africans that made them … suitable … even ideal, candidates for enslavement?” (P. 6). It seems that most books about slavery start with it as an accepted fact; no one ever asks why that should be so.

Wood argues that although the English had serfs, the feudal system was dying out by the 16th century, and slavery was unknown. She suggests that the beginnings of slavery were found in the Bible when Noah’s son Ham was punished for seeing his father naked; the punishment was that Ham’s son Canaan, and his descendants, would be “a servant of servants.” (Wood, p. 11). Thus sin and slavery were linked. In addition, captives of war, particularly the Crusades, were thought of as property to be killed or otherwise disposed of, including being sold.

In short, the idea began to take hold that there were certain people who had no rights; these people were those of other colours and other religions; they were not English. “By the 16th Century the line between the lack of Christianity and the eligibility for enslavement had long been in place.” (Wood, p. 11).

From there, it was a simple step to seeing “different” as “inferior”, particularly in people with black skin; black being associated with evil and sin. Thus, Wood argues, slavery became an acceptable institution to the English. I find her argument illuminating and convincing.

The most interesting point in the Breen and Innes book is the fact that blacks who lived on the Eastern Shore were part of a society in which equality was the norm, not the exception. They tell of an energetic black man named Anthony Johnson who worked diligently, gained his freedom, “built up a sizeable estate, and … established himself as the ‘black patriarch’ of Pungoteague Creek…” (Breen, p. 7). Johnson married in the days when most men were forced to remain single because of the scarcity of women; he and his wife raised a large, closely-knit family, and in 1655 he won a court case in which the defendant was a white man. (Breen, p. 18).

Breen and Innes’s entire book is a detailed study of the society in which blacks such as Johnson lived and sometimes thrived. They believe that there may have been some deeply buried racism, but in general, anyone who wanted to work hard, black or white, had the same chance of success, and that person was treated fairly: by the society, where interracial socializing was seen as the norm, and particularly by the courts: equality before the law was the rule, not the exception. This dream of egalitarianism was over by 1705, by the question lingers: how might the history of the U.S. have changed if this balanced society had survived?

Which Books is More Effective as a Scholarly Work?

I have to fence-sit here. I would suggest that anyone interested in the history of blacks on the Eastern Shore would do well to read Wood’s book first, to get a general overview of the reasons why the English colonists instituted slavery in Tidewater Virginia; then read Breen and Innes for their detailed descriptions of the daily lives of these people.

Which Book is More Intriguing to a Reader?

Here the choice is easy: Breen and Innes’ book is much more interesting for the average reader, because of the countless personal stories they tell. We get to know the people as more than just statistics and examples, and that makes them come alive; when this happens it’s always a great pleasure for a reader.

Conclusion

I believe both books are valuable, and complement each other rather than being complete opposites.

References

Breen, I. and Stephen Innes. Myne Owne Ground. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Wood, Betty. The Origins of American Slavery. New York: Hill and Wang—Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.

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Two Views of Slavery. (2021, Feb 17). Retrieved June 19, 2021, from https://essayscollector.com/essays/two-views-of-slavery/