Monday 22 June 2020

How well or badly were slaves treated in the American South?

Since slavery is in the news, here is what I blogged five years ago on the subject, an article I was inspired to write after reading Tolstoy talking about serfs being whipped.

I recently mentioned that the Liberals and the Guardian in England backed the Confederacy but here is another article from 2015 on the same theme.

This link is to a blog post written by someone who calls himself Lorenzo, who talks about Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom by Peter Kolchin, a book which is on my list to read. Lorenzo says:

Kolchin makes very clear that Russian serfdom was much more like chattel slavery than its medieval precursor. Medieval serfs existed in much more complex social arrangements and generally had relatively static obligations. Russian serfs were literally owned and far more subject to the whims of their owners. 

Kolchin characterises both American slavery and Russian serfdom as responses by elites on the periphery of the capitalist world to labour shortage coming from demand for products of labour coupled with low population density. In both cases, the cost of coercion ‘paid off’ economically, particularly as there was deemed to be no moral cost. Kolchin has an excellent sense of how differently embedded in their different societies American slavery and Russian serfdom were (for example, the slaves lived in a slaveholder’s world, the serf’s in a peasant’s world; American slaveholders were much more effective and empowered as a social group than Russian serfowners; American slavery was vibrant and expanding, Russian serfdom was a system in decay).
It's interesting to learn that American slaves ate better than European workers, including I imagine the Lancashire mill girls, who supported the North even though the Civil War put them out of work, and slightly better than American workers.

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