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Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America
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Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America

4.04 of 5 stars 4.04  ·  rating details  ·  574 ratings  ·  22 reviews
When Americans look at slavery, they conjure up images of tired black bodies picking cotton from sunup to sundown under Southern skies. That image is partly true, but, as the noted history professor Ira Berlin details, the lives of slaves in America's racist system were complex and diverse. "Viewing slavery through the perspective of what slaves did most of the time," Berl ...more
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Published (first published March 4th 1998)
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Ebony Thomas
This is one of the best accounts of slavery from the first North American colonies to the Revolutionary War. It upended some of what I've always believed about slavery in the United States and filled in many gaps in my historical knowledge. Berlin's distinctions between societies with slaves and slave societies; between Atlantic creoles and saltwater slaves; between creolization and Africanization; and discussion of the agency and sheer ingenuity displayed by the charter, plantation, and revolut ...more
Joseph Stieb
Ira Berlin’s expansive Many Thousands Gone surveys the history black slavery in North America in the 17th and 18th centuries. Berlin has three major goals in this book. His first goal is to account for the geographical variations in slavery over four major regions of North America. His second goal is to explain changes in slavery and slave culture in these regions over time by dividing the first two hundred years of slavery into three generations. He achieves these first two goals, painting a vi ...more
Kirk Battle
It's a good social history of slavery and breaks down a lot of nuances between the different regions, cultures, and periods while Atlantic slavery developed. It also totally ignores the economics and business side of this process, instead occasionally indicating that this was profitable or that plantation owners rarely had the money to actually feed and take care of their slave populations. It makes for a frustrating but solid read.

Written by Ira Berlin, the first 100 pages deal with distinguish
2014 - Seven years later this book holds up a bit better on second (albeit grad school style) reading. I guess I've had to plow through far more less compelling reads by this point. It's been interesting reading this in conjunction with:
-Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom
-Parent, Foul Means
-Hatfield, Atlantic Virginia
-Fischer, Suspect Relations

Eltis, The Rise of African Slavery is soon to follow...

2007 - Necessary background info, but not told in the most captivating manner...

If you stepped ashore in Charles Town, South Carolina during the early eighteenth century you would have seen black women hawking their wares, black stevedores unloading and loading ships, and other black men tending the forge, repairing ships, and cobbling fine shoes. You might have also noticed a variety of Africans donning the sartorial appearance of Anglo-Americans—displaying pocket watches, gowns, and wigs. Despite their skilled craft and sophisticated appearance many of these men and women ...more
Easily one of the best histories of American slavery during colonial times. If your image of slavery is the plantation and the large cotton fields, pick this book up and read. Berlin reveals the complexities of slavery over time and place. He also has the virtue of being a clear and interesting writer.
Jan 14, 2008 Anna rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: everyone, even non-history buffs
Recommended to Anna by: Prof. Sheehan-Dean
One of the best "had to" reads from college. Berlin is very well received in the antebellum history world. This book is a surprisingly informative and objective look at slavery in the United States. He also goes into great detail of the plight and success of free blacks before the Civil War.
Really, a very good history book. Documents how slavery changed over several generations of British colonies and then American government: specifically, the rigidification of enslavement, and its link to race.
John Beeler
Berlin captures the story of undocumented slaves. Sometimes he stretches what little sources exist, but I like stretching.
Matthew Linton
Ira Berlin's "Many Thousands Gone" is a synthetic history, which seeks to examine the regional differences between the North, Chesapeake, Lower Mississippi Valley, and Upper South (primarily South Carolina) during the first two-hundred years of slavery. Berlin's most significant contribution to the history of American slavery is the distinction between societies with slaves and slave societies. Societies with slaves count slaves among their population,but they are not the primary means of produc ...more
David Bates
Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone focuses more on the variations and development in the institutions of slavery as the driver of racial attitudes. Observing that it has become somewhat ubiquitous to understand race as a social construction, Berlin employs the contrasting development of slavery in different regions to make the point that it is a historical construction, involving shifting conditions which strengthened or weakened the position of masters and slaves as they continually renegotiated ...more
I didn't actually read this whole thing, but I read five or six chapters, mainly all the information on slavery in the North. This is a great book to keep in mind, maybe not to sit down and read all the way through in one go, but as a reference with information on many different eras and geographic areas of slavery. Berlin is very thorough, he separates slavery in North America into distinct regions (North, Mississippi River, Upper South, etc) and different 'generations' of slaves. He further an ...more
Ira Berlin's "magisterial synthesis" of slavery in North America does the important work of historicizing and thus complicating the institution of slavery. By dividing slavery into three generations and across four different geographical terrains (North, Chesapeake, Lover Mississipi Valley and the Lowcountry (South Carolina, Georgia, Florida), Berlin reorients the historical narrative away from more popular discussions of the antebellum period, and places both slavery and constructions of race i ...more
Masterful synthesis. Enjoyed, in particular, the book's accounts of life along the West African coast and of urban slavery generally. Nevertheless, the central thesis of the book namely that negotiation was at work between slaves and masters is a bit overstated. We must not forget that the "negotiated" relationship was ever one-sided. Though I'm ecstatic that historians are returning agency to slaves, I worry that they do so at the expense of the brutal realities at work. Still, the treatment of ...more
This is an excellent overview of the first two hundred years of slavery in the American colonies. The book covers a very broad topic, comparing slavery in the various regions of North America, and is rather repetitious, especially when showing the similarities between slave cultures and experiences. That being said, it is a wonderful place to start if you are interested in learning about the origins of slavery in the United States. Berlin's notes include a long list of sources which are useful i ...more
Berlin does an excellent job distinguishing the complexities of the first two hundred years of slavery in North America. By dividing the book by both generations and geography, Berlin brings a unique voice to each section of his work.

I will defiantly consult this again as reference material if I need to look up a specific group/time period, but the organization of the book does not naturally lend itself for a great cover to cover read.
I studied labor systems in colonial North America and I have to say, out of all the books I read for my degree, this one was the best. Berlin's depiction of slavery in the American colonies was inspired and his research was diligent. I could not recommend this enough for students of slavery, race relations, colonial America, labor, and so on. This book made reading for my comps a joy.
A very informative, clear book about the differences in slavery from region to region and how slavery in each place changed over time. This is a good book for someone with a substantial interest in slavery, as it is pretty long and very detailed, but essential reading for anyone specializing in African-American history or studying American history at an advanced level.
Dan Slaughter
It's amazing the amount of sheer detail this man includes in this book, yet he creates a vivid, gripping, almost narrative-like, story of early American history and especially *how* Blacks came to be slaves -- history seldom as plainly exposed as it is here.
Ira Berlin is teaching a class at UMD on the role of slavry in the establishment of the University. The book is a well-organized and rigorous history of slavery in the U.S. up to the Revolutionary period.
Berlin presents a compelling look at the many facets of slavery. I read this for a class on slavery.
OK, Ira: when are you going to have another idea?!
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  • American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia
  • Soul by Soul: Life inside the Antebellum Slave Market
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  • Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America
  • The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity
  • White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812
  • Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory
  • American Slavery: 1619-1877
  • Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South
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  • Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made
  • Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery
  • Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion
  • Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race
  • Ar'n't I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South
  • Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920
  • Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War
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