Katherine Johnston

Apr 3, 2023

The Nature of Slavery

Environment and Plantation Labor in the Anglo-Atlantic World

Oxford University Press 2022

purchase at bookshop.org

The Nature of Slavery: Environment and Plantation Labor in the Anglo-Atlantic World (Oxford UP, 2022) interrogates how people with an interest in African slavery manufactured and publicly disseminated a baseless rhetoric about climate, race, and labor that they knew, privately, to contradict their lived experiences.

In the late eighteenth century, plantation owners and slaveholders in the Caribbean and the American South publicly argued that physiological and biological differences made African people more capable of withstanding the heat and labor required to work on plantations. This climatic defense of slavery allowed planters to deny their own culpability in enslaving human beings while also framing the issue of racial slavery. The Nature of Slavery challenges this framing of labor, environment, and the development of racial ideologies. Using extensive personal and professional correspondence and colonial records, Dr. Katherine Johnston demonstrates that privately planters did not observe any health differences between Black and white bodies. White slaveholders publicly defended racial slavery constructed on a climatic rhetoric and biological theory of race they knew to be false. The ideology linking race and climate supported the economic motives of these enslavers and this defense of racial slavery in the late 18th century became a retroactive explanation for its establishment in the colonies. This climatic dichotomy to justify slavery and their economic livelihood contributed to historical myths about enslaved bodies and a groundless theory of race which was used to perpetuate the institution of slavery. Nature of Slavery powerfully argues that a “rhetoric of bodily difference gained strength and power as slaveholders and others imbued it with a language of nature.”

Dr. Katherine Johnston is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History & Philosophy at Montana State University. Her work focuses on slavery, race, the body, and the environment in Atlantic plantation societies.

Daniela Lavergne served as the editorial assistant for this podcast.

Susan Liebell is Dirk Warren '50 Professor of Political Science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

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