Slaves Without Masters/Free at Last

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Ira Berlin, both titles The New Press, £12.99 and £13.99

Slaves Without Masters and Free at Last are two classic books on the topic of slavery. Ira Berlin's premise is that "the American colonies, the republic that was formed out of the colonies, the tobacco, rice, indigo, sugar and eventually the cotton they grow, brings capital into the United States. That capital becomes central to the creation of the economy that we enjoy today."

Berlin's books describe how slavery fertilised every root and branch of the US, which it used the pivot of unfree labour to raise itself to the pedestal of the most powerful economy in the world.

These books are detailed accounts of the slave labourers' lives. Slaves Without Masters was first published in 1974. It came out of the ferment of studies done by researchers during the civil rights movement and its aftermath.

Together the books represent an indispensable attempt to tell the story of slaves and the impact of their lives on the development of the US in a very dynamic way. Far from seeing them as passive victims, Berlin gives voice to those long dead to show their active participation in history.

He gives an account of how slavery was imposed. For example the state of Virginia, the birthplace of slavery in the US, was multiracial and not segregated in the 17th century. It had to be transformed into a slave society because "the tobacco barons needed labour", but many people of African descent escaped and became free, while still living there. The people in the area were "jumbled up... They work together, they play together, they fight, they sleep together."

This is not a particularly radical statement in and of itself, but it rewrites how the South sees itself, and challenges the revisionism of Southern historians who portray the South as sadly wronged.

Berlin shows that it was only with the development of the plantations that black people came to be seen inherently as slaves. He demonstrates that the notion of racism as we understand it was not justified by notions of black people as "dull", "stupid" or "lazy".

For instance there were black planters who were regarded by other landowners as competitors rather than naturally inferior. That idea evolved later in order to vindicate slave labour and the rise of the capitalist plantation.

Within these books is a constant narrative of the slaves' lives as human beings. During the civil rights movement, there was deep research into this missing chapter in US history through interviews with slave descendents and a new examination of documents.

These excellent books form a crucial part of this body of evidence about the fight against slavery that the slaves themselves waged from its beginning, through the Civil War to modern times.