David Brion Davis: His new book reviewed in NYT

Historians in the News

... [T]he publication of David Brion Davis's "Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World" could not be more welcome. As much as any single scholar, Davis, a professor emeritus and the former director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale University, has made slavery a central element in modern historiography. Although the focus of "Inhuman Bondage" is largely on the Americas, he appreciates that the slavery of the recent past cannot be understood apart from its long history, one that reaches back to antiquity and stretches across the globe.

The genius of "Inhuman Bondage" is in Davis's ability to identify the big questions: Why slavery? Why did slavery become identified with Africans and their descendants? Why was slavery so easily accepted before 1776 and so readily challenged thereafter? Why did racism outlast slavery? On each of these matters, and dozens more, Davis expertly summarizes the debates, bringing clarity to the contending arguments. "Inhuman Bondage" is a tour de force of synthetic scholarship.

But Davis is not merely a referee among historical gladiators. He gets in with the lions, forcing a rethinking of many of the most fundamental issues. He examines the twists and turns of slavery's development and the contingencies that set human history off in unexpected directions: the patent evil that redounds to the good and the earnest benevolence that creates untold pain.

Tracing slavery back to its beginnings, Davis links it to the domestication of wild animals. Associations with animals range from Aristotle's musing that an ox is a poor man's slave to the brutish treatment of enslaved people — throughout history, slaves, like domesticated beasts, have been given the names of barnyard animals and household pets, branded with hot irons and forced to wear collars, making it easy for slave masters to dehumanize them. Although the masters often rationalized slavery as a variation of patriarchal paternalism, Davis sees bestialization as the means by which slaveholders elevated themselves, creating the illusion that they enjoyed "something approaching divine power."

A s for American slavery in particular, Davis traces several critical transformations. The first was the mass production of previously exotic commodities — sugar, coffee, rice and tobacco — for sale on the international market. These products joined Europe, Africa and the Americas together, spurred the investment of an unparalleled amount of capital, stimulated technological innovation and, most important, resulted in the enslavement of millions of men and women. At first some of these were taken from Europe and others from the Americas. Eventually, however, Africa became the exclusive source of slave labor.

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