The American Slave Coast is a big book, both physically (over 700 pages including citations) and conceptually. From the colonial period to the postbellum, the authors Ned and Constance Sublette cast slavery, and the slave-breeding industry, as the center of American history. It’s a provocative and nightmarish thesis, so distant from conventional ideas about America’s history that it feels like a dispatch from an entirely different time and place. If America had lost the Cold War, maybe this is how kids would be learning the nation’s story.
There’s an important fundamental difference between the history of slavery in the United States and a “history of the slave-breeding industry,” as The American Coast is subtitled. Slavery, in simplest terms, was unpaid labor. Slaves were shipped from Africa to the American South, where they cultivated tobacco and picked cotton and served owners but didn’t get paid and couldn’t leave. Slowly, reformers and abolitionists chipped away at the institution, first banning the Transatlantic trade, then fighting a civil war to eliminate human bondage. Freeing the slaves destroyed the South’s pseudo-feudal economy, ending the region’s economic dominance. That’s the story.
But to think about American slaves merely as coerced and unpaid laborers is to misunderstand the institution. Slaves weren’t just workers, the Sublettes remind the reader—they were human capital. The very idea that people could be property is so offensive that we tend retroactively to elide the designation, projecting onto history the less-noxious idea of the enslaved worker, rather than the slave as commodity. Mapping 20th-century labor models onto slavery spares us from reckoning with the full consequences of organized dehumanization, which lets us off too easy: To turn people into products means more than not paying them for their work.
One of the central misconceptions the Sublettes seek to debunk is the subordination of American slavery to the transatlantic trade. Conceptually locating the center of the slave trade offshore is good for America’s self-image, and it’s an old line. The Sublettes quote Southern slavers who blamed English firms for forcing the barbaric mode of transportation on America. In schools, the 1808 ban on capturing and shipping slaves is taught as part of the end of slavery, but the Sublettes re-frame it as simple protectionism: Domestic producers wanted to lock out foreign competition.