BREAKING THE CHAINS African-American Slave Resistance By William Loren Katz Atheneum. 194 pp. $14.95
IN Breaking the Chains, William Loren Katz has written a book that depicts the horrors of slavery and the heroic struggle of blacks in the Americas to be free. (The book is subtitled "African-American Slave Resistance," but contains much information about South America and Haiti and other Caribbean countries.) Some of the men and women he writes about, like Toussaint L'Ouverture, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, are well known -- their lives and their deeds have long been a part of our national history. Others are completely unknown; even their names have been lost. But what the men and women whose stories are told here have in common is their resistance -- passive, active and outright rebellious -- to slavery.
To justify their involvement in slavery and the slave trade, whites contended that blacks were inferior, and thus slavery was an uplifting and civilizing influence, or that blacks willingly submitted to slavery and loved their masters. The truth, as Katz recounts here, was actually quite different.
From the beginning, captured Africans rebelled. "We shackle the men two and two, while we lie in port, and in sight of their own country, for 'tis then they attempt to make their escape and mutiny," wrote the captain of one slave ship in 1693. The captain's caution was well-founded. Untold numbers of blacks killed themselves rather than endure the voyage from Africa to the Americas that we call the Middle Passage. But they succeeded often enough in taking over the vessels on which they were held -- in port or at sea -- so that "slavers knew they carried the most dangerous cargo in the world."
Once the slave ships had reached the New World, slaves continued to fight. In Hispaniola, Brazil, Jamaica and Surinam, escaped slaves, called "maroons," waged guerrilla warfare against Europeans, refusing a peace offer from Spain in 1545 in Hispaniola, and concluding a separate peace in Jamaica with the British.
In the United States, slavery flourished in the South and became the foundation of that region's economy. Blacks, Katz writes, produced 90 percent of all cotton in 1860, as well as virtually all of the tobacco in Virginia, rice in South Carolina and sugar in Lousiana.
The system that produced such riches denied the slaves' humanity -- they could not vote, own property or marry, and were forbidden to learn to read or write. It was also a system founded on an arbitrary, capricious cruelty. One unnamed Louisiana woman Katz quotes remembered being whipped because she told her owner, " 'My mother sent me.' We were not allowed to call our mammies 'mother.' It made it come too near the way of the white folks." Another woman remembered that her father was whipped "because he looked at a slave they killed, and cried."
The graphic nature of some of the descriptions make this a book for mature junior high school and high school students. But slavery was a brutal institution, and Breaking the Chains is valuable because it corrects the impression that blacks brought nothing to this country and endured slavery passively. Katz makes it clear that blacks understood their own humanity, even if whites did not, and, contrary to white assumptions and expectations, valued freedom, family and community. David Nicholson is an assistant editor of The Washington Post Book World.