Friday, October 15, 2010

Review: Strange New Land by Peter H. Wood

Strange New Land: Africans in Colonial America by Peter H. Wood
Genre: Non-Fiction History
Pages: 136
Date Published: November 2002
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Source: Ordered from Paperback Swap
Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Book Description (from the publisher):
Engaging and accessibly written, Strange New Land explores the history of slavery and the struggle for freedom before the United States became a nation. Beginning with the colonization of North America, Peter Wood documents the transformation of slavery from a brutal form of indentured servitude to a full-blown system of racial domination. Strange New Land focuses on how Africans survived this brutal process--and ultimately shaped the contours of American racial slavery through numerous means, including:
  • Mastering English and making it their own
  • Converting to Christianity and transforming the religion
  • Holding fast to Islam or combining their spiritual beliefs with the faith of their masters
  • Recalling skills and beliefs, dances and stories from the Old World, which provided a key element in their triumphant story of survival
  • Listening to talk of liberty and freedom, of the rights of man and embracing it as a fundamental right--even petitioning colonial administrators and insisting on that right.
Against the troubling backdrop of American slavery, Strange New Land surveys black social and cultural life, superbly illustrating how such a diverse group of people from the shores of West and Central Africa became a community in North America.
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Peter Wood's Strange New Land is an excellent and intriguing introduction to the status of Africans in colonial America and the development of slavery before the Revolutionary war. It starts with the earliest Africans to set foot in North America--those who traveled with Spanish explorers as soldiers, sailors, and servants. Such early coverage goes deeper than most US History survey textbooks, and since the information on these Africans was new to me, I thought it was fascinating.

The book then ventures into more familiar territory with a look at the Africans who were imported to the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (present-day New York) and the English colonies in North America in the first half of the seventeenth century. Africans brought here so early on had a better chance of gaining their freedom because they were often treated like indentured servants--they signed a contract to work for their employer for a given number of years and were freedmen after that.

The second half of the seventeenth century brought a change, what Wood calls "a terrible transformation." A variety of conditions caused the transformation, including a decrease in the number of English servants coming to America, an increase in the demand for labor, an improvement in living conditions in the southern colonies, an increase in the availability of African slave imports, and the settlement of whites from Caribbean plantations (who had long entrenched race slavery) to the mainland who brought their system of slavery with them. All of these conditions contributed to the gradual rise of race-based hereditary slavery in colonial America.

The book also discusses how different waves of slaves at different times and going to different places faced different conditions. And even though Africans were brought to America with many different backgrounds, from many different cultures, and speaking different languages, they were able to adapt and develop their own unique culture that incorporated African and European traditions. Additionally, although the institution of slavery made it very difficult to develop stable families, slaves developed durable families and extensive networks of kinship anyway. The last two chapters explore the ways that slaves challenged their bondage (through violent and non-violent means) and how Africans responded to the Revolutionary ideas of liberty and freedom during the years leading up to the Revolutionary war.

As you can tell, this book is pretty wide-ranging in scope and covers a lot of time and ground, but it does it briefly. At only 94 pages of text, it provides an introduction at best to the topic and left me wishing there were more specific examples to go with the narrative. The book provides no footnotes either, but has a decent bibliography at the end to lead readers toward deeper works on the topics. For a scholarly monograph (Dr. Wood teaches at Duke University), this one is quite engaging and a nice way to ease the curious into what can be a pretty complex topic. I believe the book was intended for US History Survey courses, but it is written in a way that the general reader would have no problems with it at all. I give it 3.5 stars because I wish it hadn't been so brief, but I would have no qualms recommending it to anyone wishing to learn more about Africans in colonial America and how the institution of slavery developed.

**I noticed that this review gets a lot of search engine hits and I can only assume that students are looking for more information on a book they have to read or write about for a class. If this is you, don't copy and paste my information into your paper. It is plagiarism and it is super easy to find this review just by plugging in a sentence of it into Google, so don't think you won't get caught. Sure, use my review to help you brainstorm things to write about, but if you use my ideas please cite them properly and include this review in your bibliography. And if you think I've said something so absolutely beautifully that you must quote me, use quotation marks and give me credit. Thank you!

Related linkage:
 Reading Challenges: POC Reading Challenge

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