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“Known to be Equal to the Management”: The Modernising Planter and the Enslaved Overseer

Phillips, Gervase and Sandy, Laura (2020) “Known to be Equal to the Management”: The Modernising Planter and the Enslaved Overseer. Journal of Global Slavery. ISSN 2405-8351 (In Press)

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Abstract

Enslaved overseers have largely been neglected in the extant historiography of plantation slavery. At best they have been pushed to the margins of in the literature, their numbers and their significance downplayed. Yet, as large plantations diversified over the latter years of the eighteenth century, and as relations between established planters and independently minded and aspirational white overseers became prone to mistrust and friction, many prominent modernising planters, including both Washington and Jefferson, began to experiment with unfree managers. They often proved to be skilled, dependable and, even under the pressure of the Revolutionary War, resilient. Yet their presence raised serious questions within plantation society too; they challenged white racial hegemony, and their ‘loyalty’ was a conditional and contingent quality. They occupy a unique place in the story of plantation management, one that challenges orthodox conceptions of race and power in the slave South.

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