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Social History of Knowledge in the

Slaveholding Atlantic World








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Eastern andTechnocrats:
Central European Studies A Social History of Knowledge in
RESEA ROOD Plantation
History 1830-1865 ROTH
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the Slaveholding Atlantic
A review of Plantation Technocrats: A Social History of Knowledge in the Slaveholding

Atlantic World, 1830-1865, by Daniel Rood

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It would be impossible to deny the role of slavery in the development of modern industrial
capitalism. Slave colonies provided Europe with sugar and tobacco, with a source of labor,
with a place to send its surplus population, and with an investment upon which to build
merchant fortunes. But as Dan Rood points out in his ambitious Plantation Technocrats, in all
accounts of slavery as an economic system it prefigures, foreshadows, and props up, but is
always prior-to or other-than true capitalism (p. 14), with the implicit or explicit corollary
that industrial development inevitably brings slavery to an end. But as Rood shows, there was
nothing at all incompatible about slavery and industry. In fact, the world of slavery was where
new industrial professions and forms of expert knowledge, like engineering and chemistry,
took shape. His dissertation traces many of these experts in their travels around the Atlantic
world. In doing so Rood is also making bigger arguments about how the nineteenth century
world economy was organized, and about the relation of slave economies to free ones.

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The Atlantic world was not, he writes, divided into colonial or peripheral places orbiting
metropolitan or core sites. Instead he sees it crisscrossed by many economic circuits that
connected various parts of the Atlantic world in defiance of easy distinctions between core
and periphery. Moreover, a single place might express multiple identities, simultaneously
selling raw materials, as a colony would, in one circuit, while exporting complex
manufactures, as a metropole would, in another. It is just such nimble, semiperipheral
places, like Virginia, Cuba, and Brazil that interest Rood, and it is not a coincidence that all had
long traditions of slavery. Far from rendering them unsuitable for industry, slavery brought a
cultural creolization that could make them creative and vital sites of industrial
experimentation. Rood shows how slavery actually fostered an atmosphere of experiment
that characterized the new professional identities of engineers, chemists, and other experts
who went to work there.

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The first of Roods four chapters, Plantation Laboratories: Industrial Experiments in the
Cuban Sugar-Mill, 1830-1860, argues that Cuban plantations became sites of a new kind of
industrial experiment, and indeed the industrialization of experiment itself, in the early
nineteenth century. He leaves behind more abstract debates about whether knowledge could
be indigenous or exogenous to peripheral or semiperipheral zones to show in detail how the
plantation became the site of chemical-industrial trials. In such trials, credibility depended on
appeals to grounded local knowledge at one moment and to overseas authority at the next,
and the marketability of inventions and improvements depended on their having been
subjected to the rigors of actual plantation work.

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Claims of mobility and groundedness became resources in disputes about improvements

to sugar production, and planters, experts, and other interested individuals became expert at
privileging whichever position they happened to occupy. The planter and distiller Miguel
Arango y Quesada, for example, could criticize the idea for improving distillation that Jos Luis
Casaseca had cooked up in his Havana laboratory rather than on a plantation, while
simultaneously poking him for being unfamiliar with scholarly French authors (p. 50).
Meanwhile, Casaseca could criticize his Parisian colleagues (or rather those whom he hoped
would become his Parisian colleagues) for their ignorance of the influence of the tropical
climate and of the technical state of most Cuban plantations, to whom they had tried to sell a
miraculous replacement for quicklime (p. 35).
If it were true that slavery and industrialism were incompatible, one would have expected
these experiments to be designed to eliminate the role of slaves. Yet it was rule-of-thumb
artisans and craCsmen whom the engineers and chemists claimed they were trying to
scientifically cut out of the production process. In fact, Rood writes, One of the ideological

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