Planting an Empire

In their well-researched book Planting an Empire: The Early Chesapeake in British North America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), Jean B. Russo and J. Elliot Russo provide a rather exhaustive account of early European exploration and English settlement of the Chesapeake Bay region, and the development of “sister colonies” Virginia (1607) and Maryland  (1634). They cover the period from exploration until just before the French and Indian War (1754).   The main argument posited by the authors is that “any broad assessment [of the Chesapeake colonies in their first century or so of existence] must conclude that for white society as a whole enslaved labor was the route to substantial wealth.” (198)  The focus of Planting an Empire is indisputably wealth– how it was made and transferred, by whom, to whom, and with what consequences. At times, the authors’ focus on economics can be tiresome.  Nevertheless, the Russos do provide context and examples to balance estate lists and ships’ manifests. This balance helps readers see the way economic decisions impacted life at a personal, local, and macroscopic level.  Unfortunately, slavery is not really examined as more than an economic institution, and the Russos seem to presume that the meaning of freedom is static and universal.

Economics is everywhere in Planting an Empire, from the role of English investment companies in the founding of settlements in Virginia and Maryland, to their growth as tobacco colonies to their diversification with westward expansion.  Economics also connects the Chesapeake to the Caribbean from which most early slaves arrived in the North American colonies,  rather than directly from Africa (94) and to which colonists exported goods such as timber and wheat (148).  The establishment of social stability in the colonies over time created a series of “complex cultural changes” (129) that allowed established families to accumulate ever more capital, some of it in the form of slaves (132). Because the purchase of slaves was “out of reach for small planters,” (134) it became a hallmark of genteel life for planters not only to own slaves, but to have slaves dedicated to particular tasks in all aspects of plantation life –in the fields and in the home (161).

Despite describing colonial laws as “severely circumscribing the lives of all black people, whether free or enslaved” and claiming that “the region acquired the cultural features of a slave society, permeated by violence and […] notions of inherent inequality,” the Russos also maintain that “poorer whites who did not own slaves could have seen themselves as having more in common with blacks than with men whose wealth derived from slavery” (166). While the book provides readers with a sense of the importance of slavery to the economy of the colonial Chesapeake, the authors do not explore the human dimension of slavery. Slaves appear –as they might have to the colonists themselves– as little more than livestock.

Only the final chapter of the book really goes into significant detail about the lives of people of color in the colonial Chesapeake. There, the Russos provide evidence that racial distinction were still in flux in the colonial Chesapeake, and people of color could be more or less integrated into the social life of the colones; Under law, mixed-race children born to white women were free. Perhaps unsurprisingly, mixed-race children born to black women were slaves. The Russos also present evidence about the private lives and experiences of enslaved people. They review archaeological evidence to postulate about slave hobbies and diet (172). The book also provides a window into the potential usefulness of genealogy as a historical source. Familiar surnames in the Baltimore-Washington area like Carter and Carroll appear repeatedly along with other family names –Claiborne, Dinwiddie, Madden, Nicholson, Paca, Custis, Greene, Fleet, Dulany, Calvert, Addison– now common on street and place names throughout the Baltimore metro area. Because enslaved people were often assigned their owners’ last names, these family connections may provide us with clues for re-evaluating the historical record of slavery. The Russos also provide some geographical insights. Slaveowning was not as widespread on the Chesapeake’s Eastern shore (199), so that area may have been a first stop on the way to freedom.

Adapted from Planting an Empire- can you dig it? by David B.

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