Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Swamps.

Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Swamps. – book reviews

Gwendolyn Midlo Hall

This book is a thoroughly researched, well-written work. It focuses upon several very large estates owned by two family dynasties during the nineteenth century: the Manigaults and the Allstons. It devotes a great deal of attention to these elite families based upon a number of books, manuscripts, and memoirs, both published and unpublished. The writer thoroughly mines the plantation records left by these families. He relies heavily upon Frances Kemble’s famous published account of her experiences on one of the Butler plantations. The writer has studied slave narratives as well as interviews of elderly slaves collected during the early twentieth century. He makes serious efforts to get into the minds and hearts of the slaves through speculating upon somewhat limited materials found in the estate records and other sources. One of the greatest strengths of this book is its exposure of the benevolent and paternalistic pretentions of this slaveholding elite, including its female members.

The writer states that rice cultivation was growing in both productivity and profitability during the ante-bellum period, and that holdings were concentrated in few hands. Thus by 1860, the median number of slaves held by the 12 largest rice planters was 393, and the 29 largest rice planters had median holdings of 358 slaves. It was these large rice planters who played the major role in initiating the Civil War. If we look at these figures from another angle, however, we arrive at 10,382 slaves owned by the 29 largest rice planters in 1860, which surely leaves vast numbers of low country slaves working on smaller holdings.

Despite its strengths, there are problems with this book. The biggest one is generalizing from very limited time, place, and circumstance. If the writer had argued that he could generalize from his study of these two elite dynasties of rice planters to rice planters in general in the low country during the nineteenth century, we might be able to take his conclusions more seriously. But when he proceeds from the records of the Gowrie plantation which he himself recognizes as atypical to conclude that family life among slaves throughout the United States was unstable, (p. 121) he gives us pause. His justification is that while Gowrie, located on a malaria-infested island near the mouth of the Savannah River, was not typical, it may have the best extant records for any plantation in the United States and, according to the writer, slavery was essentially the same in all times and places. He concludes that slaves were incompetent, filthy and thoroughly degraded, and masters were all-powerful.

The point of view of this book is thoroughly Eurocentric. Many African names show up, but go unnoticed. A song in Gullah, and the fact that slaves were speaking an “unintelligible” language, is mentioned in passing. The writer does not even mention the role of Africans in the technology of rice cultivation in the low country, ignoring the pioneering work of Peter Wood and Daniel Littlefield or more recent work which studies micro-systems of rice cultivation in West Africa and their transfer to Carolina and Georgia.(1) He ignores the work of Betty Wood, who established that three-fourths of the slaves shipped to Georgia during the period of tidewater rice expansion (1766-71) came from West Africa’s rice coast, and that rice plantation slaves in Georgia established and controlled an extensive and vigorous informal economy.(2)

A main thrust of this book is an implied, and sometimes stated, revisionist view of Eugene Genovese’s discussion of paternalism in Roll, Jordan, Roll. But the writer often misses the subtleties of Genovese’s arguments. It is doubtful that Genovese ever stated or implied that the slaveowners were not interested in making money. The writer often blurs the distinction between benevolence and paternalism. Paternalism was not essentially benevolent, it was a means of social control. Nor is there a conflict between paternalism and racism. Paternalism was a tool created because the masters were not all-powerful, and they therefore had to arrive at a system of compromise, of give and take with their slaves. The masters created paternalism as a self-justificatory ideology: something which all ruling classes seek. It is Dusinberre’s assumption that the masters were, indeed, all-powerful which leads him to embrace the phrase “system of rewards and privileges” as a substitute for “paternalism.” It is this same ideology of seeing slaves totally as victims, rarely as human beings, which motivates him to take a swipe at some of the slaves he mentions who actively resisted their enslavement as “cultural separatists.” (p. 436)

Since the 1960s, historians have argued that despite the horrors of slavery, slaves were not totally denuded of their humanity, their autonomy, and their African heritage which is an essential foundation for American culture. The history of African Americans in the United States is one of the greatest examples in history of the triumph of the human spirit despite terrible adversities. It is a story which all of us need to understand and embrace.

Gwendolyn Midlo Hall Rutgers University


1. For a review of recent literature and insightful interpretations, see Judith Carney, “Landscapes of Technology Transfer: Rice Cultivation and African Continuities,” Technology and Culture, volume 37, number 1 (January, 1996). “Rice Milling, Gender, and Slave Labour in Colonial South Carolina,” Past and Present, no. 153 (November, 1996): 108-143.

2. Betty Wood, Slavery in Colonial Georgia (Athens, GA, 1984); and Women’s Work, Men’s Work; The Informal Slave Economies of Lowcountry Georgia (Athens, GA, 1995).

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