The Peculiar Institution. Kenneth M. Stampp. Eyre & Spottiswoode, 35s.

The reprinting of this book (first published in the usa in 1956) is no doubt due to the surge of Negro militancy in the usa. It is a readable, comprehensive survey of plantation slavery in the Old South. It discusses every major phase of life in the slave plantation: work-routines, life-chances, the techniques of slave management, the legal framework, markets, property and profit in the slave economy, etc. No other standard work deals in such a systematic and thorough fashion with all that impinged on the Negro slave; as such it has virtually no competitor.

Although the presentation of the abundant empirical materials is neat and lucid, the expository method is that of a report on social conditions rather than that of an analysis of social structure and culture as meaningful totalities. The exposition is largely phenomenal—in terms of the quotidian, apparent and experienced rather than in terms of latent processes and hidden mechanisms. It is also largely immanent, drawing most perhaps on plantation records, diaries and other primary sources with the criteria of selection and interpolation relatively implicit. Given this approach, the structural coherence of slave society as a whole, particularly the way in which the non-slaveholding population (the great majority) came to share the slaveowners’ interests and values is overlooked. Yet this third force, outside the master-slave nexus, poses the most intriguing problems of theory and praxis.

Since the book is wholly innocent of comparative perspective, certain outstanding features of the Old South as opposed to the general run of slave societies are neither brought out nor explained. The slave population reproduced itself and the incidence of revolts was remarkably low. Total cultural eradication was the fate of the physical survivors, while psychologically infantilization was the goal of plantation life. Elkins’ hypotheses—not indicated in the book—go some way towards making sense of the ‘sambo’ or ‘Uncle Tom’ syndromes. But unlike the concentration camps of Elkins’ analogy, the slave plantations were successful concerns in a market economy. Rather puzzlingly, slave labour yielded satisfactory profit rates in a capitalistic world market. But if the South eluded the other—demographic and economic—forms of the self-destructive dialectic characteristic of most slave societies, it did not escape a mythopoeic nemesis. The ideological climate of the South became increasingly fantasy-ridden and myth-laden: this certainly helped to bring about the political and military confrontation that liquidated its labour system. But it had done its work so well that it left its ex-slaves without a viable collective memory or distinctive cultural heritage, with no vocation but to be Americans, unable to project an alternative system of values. Herminio Martins