REVIEW: PLANTATION LEGACY

Professor Goveia develops the compulsive force of property considerations as decisive in the whole discussion of slavery; she observes that as the institution was more and more questioned, the planters finally staked their argument rather nakedly on the admission that they “preferred the claims of property to those of humanity” (p. 48); indeed, the evidence leads one to conclude that they identified the claims of the former with those of the latter.

The larger challenge embodied in the whole abolitionist argument was not lost upon contemporaries and is brought forward by our author. Thus, she notes that in the debate on the slave trade, in the Lords, Lord Abingdon, in 1793, demanded: “What does the abolition of the slave trade mean more or less in effect than liberty and equality; and what the rights of man, but the foolish fundamental principles of this new philosophy?” (p. 36).

The writing is marked not only by care but also by great modesty; it is somewhat marred, however, by repetitiousness that more careful editing, perhaps, could have remedied.

The reviewer would like to raise some questions suggested by the volume. Certain contradictions appear. Thus, at one point the reader is told that, “Because of its openness, white society in the West Indies was characterized by a striking equality and freedom which impressed all observers” (p. 213), but at another point one observer (James Walker) is quoted as commenting upon “the rank and privilege, which are strongly marked in everything” (p. 215). Racial solidarity, even in so special a case as that of the Leeward Islands, seems incapable of altogether eliminating significant class cleavages.

At another point, readers are told that there existed little sympathy between the free coloured and the slaves (p. 223), but a little further on the reader learns of complaints from official bodies concerning exactly such sympathy (p. 224). This reviewer felt that Professor Goveia’s acceptance of the idea that the slaves, being so general an object of contempt, “had even been persuaded to despise themselves” (p. 251) is too flat and unconditional. Again, while our author accepts and emphasizes the significance of African impact upon the slaves’ cooking, folklore, dress, songs, speech, music, dancing, religion, medicine and sense of respect for the elderly, she completely rejects the idea – as advanced, for example, by Herskovits – that African influences may have been present in family arrangements and especially the place of woman. While this reviewer feels that Herskovits exaggerated this and underplayed the impact of slavery itself, he does feel that Herskovits’ view should not be discarded quite so completely as in this volume.

Professor Goveia has produced an indispensable addition to the growing literature on West Indian history and, more generally, on the phenomenon of slavery.