Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Li Qi Peh reviews Reckoning with Slavery

Jennifer L. Morgan. Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2021. 296 pp. 

Review by Li Qi Peh 

8 March 2022

That the study of capitalism is inextricable from the study of race and racialization is now a critical commonplace. The past decade has seen a renewed critical interest in such texts as Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery (1944) and Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism (1983); since then, economists, political scientists, and historians have worked to clarify the links between slavery and commerce as we understand them today. Jennifer Morgan’s Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic contributes to this rich critical tradition.   

One of the most illuminating aspects of Morgan’s work is how it invites us to reconsider the data we have about the slave trade. It is commonly assumed that the slave trade, especially during the seventeenth century, was heavily male-dominated due to the English enslaver’s desire for an all-male workforce. Morgan notes, however, that this was not necessarily the case. On Barbados, for example, the number of enslaved women far outweighed the number of enslaved men, but this fact went unacknowledged in most seventeenth-century publications (see p. 35). Taking this strange disjunction as her starting point, Morgan proposes that the widespread authorial insistence on a male majority among the enslaved should not be taken as proof of empirical reality but rather as an expression of an “ideological strategy for rationalizing the trade” (p. 49). The erasure of women via the misreporting of sex ratios effectively functioned as an erasure of kinship relations, which in turn framed the enslaved as commodities and rendered the trafficking of human life commonplace and routine. To borrow Morgan’s words, “numeracy was mobilized to situate the business of the slave trade as an overriding concern that erased the violation of affective relationships at its core” (p. 71). 

Over the course of six chapters, Reckoning with Slavery models a way of accounting for and filling in this archival silence, namely by reading references to gender and kinship “as a type of irruption” (p. 49). Attending to the canonical writings of the fifteenth-century Portuguese chronicler Gomes Eannes de Zurara, for instance, Morgan demonstrates how Zurara’s description of the grief of the enslaved reveals the damage that market forces wreak on networks of kinship. Similarly, in her analysis of a diagrammatic cross section of the crowded hold of a slave ship, she notes movingly that the easily missed image of an enslaved woman giving birth on board signals the horrors of children being viewed as commodities. Such a mode of reading reframes early colonial texts about slavery as implicit critiques of it and, in doing so, offers a way of interpreting narratives as counternarratives and a glimpse at the radical forms historical reconstruction can take. No longer is historical reconstruction merely about writing a more expansive history including the previously excluded voices of women and girls—itself a formidable task. It is also about rethinking the foundations of this history in terms of their movements and roles. 

What Reckoning with Slavery brings to literary-historical studies, then, is an archival practice that is at once historicist and reparative. On one hand, it is invested in interpreting a spotty historical record ethically, and this is shown in the book by Morgan as she brings together different archives to map a more accurate and comprehensive global history. That it leans so productively on Portuguese texts to chart a partial history of the slave trade in the English Americas is but one example. On the other hand, however, the book is also not bound by what is present in historical archives, and this is where it shines. Many of the stories of enslaved women might never be recovered, but Reckoning with Slavery shows how their stories might still be told by reading their silences creatively. The absence of women from the history of slave revolts, for instance, might not necessarily mean that they failed to participate in these uprisings or that they only participated in tiny, quotidian ways. It might also mean that their deeds were erased because women were so foundational to these uprisings that they inspired unease. Such a creative methodology paves the way for new, provocative historical narratives to be written.