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Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic

Author(s):Morgan, Jennifer L.
Reviewer(s):Mitchell, Matthew David

Published by EH.Net (January 2023).

Jennifer L. Morgan. Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021. xvi + 296 pp. $27.95 (paperback), ISBN 978-1478014140.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Matthew David Mitchell, The University of the South.


As Jennifer L. Morgan notes in her introduction to Reckoning with Slavery, “The history of slavery has been routed down one path or the other—economy or ideology” (12). Morgan persuasively argues that the profession should break down the boundary between these two parallel lines of inquiry, as Eric Williams attempted to do with the publication of Capitalism and Slavery as early as 1944. And the fact that the boundary survived Williams’s intervention and has continued to characterize most scholarship on Atlantic slavery until very recently is in Morgan’s view due to the very “nature of the archival traces of the Middle Passage… in which mathematically fixed data are in the hands of economists” who treat them with ostensible “neutrality and rigor,” while more “malleable claims rooted in culture are in the hands of humanists and artists” (53).

Enslaved women and their stories, for Morgan, stand as the great exemplars of what we have lost because of this division. Yet they are also the reason why we should challenge that division and think about “gender, kinship, and capitalism” together rather than separately. For capitalism forced a brutal paradox upon enslaved women: “the entire economy of the colonies depended on the claim that African women gave birth to slaves, not to daughters or sons, not to kin” (155). The attempts of enslaved women to refuse this “systematic denial of their kinship ties” (60) to their own children are at the heart of what Morgan seeks to elucidate in her book.

To do so using the usual methods of historical inquiry, however, is a task of exquisite difficulty; indeed, Morgan positions her book as “not a formal history, for gathering a series of archive-based linear narratives is not possible here” (23). She instead follows Saidiya Hartman’s method of “‘critical fabulation’ in the face of the impossibility of recovering the histories of those whose absence from the archive is a systemic manifestation of the violence perpetrated against them” (169). Morgan’s recounting of the story of Belinda, enslaved in Massachusetts during the eighteenth century, is a particularly memorable example of this method. Working from Belinda’s 1783 petition to the General Court of Massachusetts for her freedom, Morgan states that Belinda’s

“language reflected her acumen about the value of her labor, which ‘augmented’ the ‘immense wealth’ of her owner, the loyalist Isaac Royall. The vast array of experiences that bolstered her ability to petition the legislature are lost to us now, but… Belinda clearly articulates the ways in which her work built Royall’s wealth on the painful ground of her own severed kin ties. Those ties continued to define her and her relationship to her past and her present even though in some ways her enslavement was rooted in the fiction that such ties didn’t exist. Belinda’s petition thus clarifies that the work of erasing kinship was always incomplete” (157-158).

Morgan casts a wide net in showing how European thinkers contributed to this “work of erasing kinship” between enslaved women and their children, even when not directly discussing slavery. John Hawkins’s accounts of his three slave-catching voyages in the 1560s, and Richard Hakluyt’s reproduction of them in his Principall Navigations, figure in this discussion. More surprisingly, so do such economic writers as Thomas Mun, author in the 1620s of England’s Treasure by Forraign Trade, whom Morgan presents together with Hakluyt as having “presented slavery as logically assigned to the [English] nation’s marketplace” (70-71). She also implicates the “political arithmeticians” of the later seventeenth century such as William Petty and John Graunt, whose work marked “a shift in practices of quantification that had profound implications for those ensnared by its new terms” (96-99). Morgan devotes a further chapter to the idea of “numeracy” as a special marker of racial difference, with Europeans figuring Africans as persons they could count, while “disavowing evidence of numerical rationality among Africans” (110).

Morgan likewise scrutinizes the ways in which modern historians count enslaved Africans, particularly by means of the online Transatlantic Slave Trade Database. In keeping with her recognition that the cultural and the economic stream of scholarship on Atlantic slavery need to be brought together, she does so generously, hailing the Database as “a model of collaborative empirical scholarship” (30) that “has been extremely productive for scholarship on the transatlantic slave trade” (44), even as she perceptively critiques the ways in which it “renders the processes that put [enslaved persons] there indiscernible” (20).

Even so, her reading of the Database falters at times, particularly in her attribution of the frequent invisibility of women in the records underlying the Database to a deliberate decision on the part of slave ship owners and captains. Noting that “almost nine-tenths of voyages” recorded in the online Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database do “not contain information on the sex of the captives” (31), she ascribes this to “the captains’ silence about the numbers of women on their ships.” Asking “what productive work such omission did for ship captains involved in a profoundly violent process of rendering human beings into cargo,” Morgan draws two inferences (47-48). First, had slave traders chosen to keep accurate information on sex ratios among their captives, they would have “r[u]n the risk of ascribing the same human capacity for familial connection to captives that the captain and crew members ascribed to themselves” (47-48). Second, “data regarding sex were inconsequential to the monetary returns on a voyage’s investments: had it been financially significant to have more men than women, those data would have been more scrupulously recorded” (51). Similar arguments recur throughout the book, all based upon the premise that “the evidence [in the Database] is gleaned from merchants, traders, and ship captains” (31).

But the reality is that exceedingly few documents produced by the owners or captains of slave ships survive to the present day. In many cases, the existing documentation for a given transatlantic slave voyage comes from newspapers, government sources, or the records of marine insurers, rather than being produced by those directly involved in the organization and execution of the venture. One prominent exception is the London-based slave trader Humphry Morice, whose papers were preserved by the Bank of England because he served as its Governor from 1727 to 1729. And while these do not offer full documentation for all of Morice’s voyages, those documents that do exist show assiduous record-keeping of “men,” “women,” “boys,” and “girls,” that were bought by, sold by, or happened to die aboard his ships.

Yet such difficulties are, I think, an inherent part of the process when the practitioners of two different strands of scholarship on the same subject begin to learn each other’s languages, borrow each other’s methods, and share each other’s interpretive concerns. Morgan’s account of the archival silence around the women who faced the predicament (as she evocatively terms it) of forced productive and reproductive labor is a worthy contribution to the growing body of literature that seeks to reach the multiple scholarly communities that study Atlantic slavery.


Matthew David Mitchell is Associate Professor of History at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. He is the author of The Prince of Slavers: Humphry Morice and the Transformation of Britain’s Transatlantic Slave Trade, 1698–1732 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).

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Subject(s):Historical Demography, including Migration
Servitude and Slavery
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
North America
Time Period(s):16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century