Although historians of American slavery have long since broadened their geographic focus beyond the South, a handful of northern states have managed to escape their attention. Kenneth E. Marshall adds to the short list of books on antebellum slavery in New Jersey, whose slave population was, by 1830, the largest in the North. Marshall examines the lives of three male slaves, Quamino Buccau, and Yombo and Dick Melick, who lived in central New Jersey in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As his title suggests, Marshall is centrally concerned with slave manhood, which he describes as ‘multifaceted and complex, and rooted in the willingness of bondmen to survive by any means necessary, including compromising their principles for the sake of their families' well-being’ (p. 6). Marshall's short narrative asks by what means these three slaves preserved their dignity in the face of enslavement.
Any scholar seeking to reconstruct the experiences of African American slaves must cull his facts from a source base produced largely by whites. Marshall relies heavily on two such sources, the Memoir of Quamino Buccau (1851), written by William Allinson, a Quaker abolitionist, and The Story of an Old Farm (1889), a family history written by a former New Jersey realtor that includes brief descriptions of the family's slaves, Yombo and Dick. By discounting the authors' evident biases and supplementing their descriptions with admirable primary research and secondary works such as Graham Russell Hodges's Slavery and Freedom in the Rural North: African Americans in Monmouth County (1997) and Root and Branch: African Americans in New York and East Jersey, 1613–1863 (1999), Marshall gleans all he can from these less-than-reliable sources.
Like Hodges, Marshall places great emphasis on the fortifying role of religion in slaves' lives. He speculates that West African religious beliefs helped enslaved Africans endure the Middle Passage and shaped their response to the physical and psychological hardships of slave labour. He writes that Quamino Buccau, whom Allinson depicts as ‘an exemplar of Christian humility and devotion’ (p. 99), actually used his Christian faith to hide his rage and deceive whites, who, convinced of his meekness, repeatedly came to Quamino's aid after his owner freed him in 1805. Dick Melick, who ‘lived his life as a docile and humble Christian’, built a meaningful black community around his weekly church visits and the Christmas parties he and his wife threw for neighbouring slaves (p. 116). Religion, in Marshall's view, was central to slave survival and resistance.
Marshall is at his best when putting together disparate pieces of evidence to reconstruct the lives of his subjects. From The Story of an Old Farm's brief description of Yombo's origins – ‘a Guinea negro, having been brought from Africa when a boy, where, as he claimed, his father was a “big man”’ – Marshall deduces that Yombo's parents were probably the slaves whose suicide was described in an obscure church sermon delivered in Hunterdon County, New Jersey in 1894. On the basis of Yombo's name and the sermon's assertion that his mother and father had shared rule back in Africa, Marshall concludes that Yombo and his parents were probably Mande-speaking Mendes from present-day Sierra Leone, purchased in Perth Amboy at the slave market at the corner of Smith and Water.
In places, as Marshall acknowledges, the paucity of source material makes the book's conclusions necessarily conjectural. From the adult Yombo's description of his father as an African ‘big man’, for instance, Marshall concludes that Yombo was not ashamed of his parents' likely suicide, but rather saw it as their successful attempt to control their own fates. Marshall's commitment to a resistance paradigm also occasionally leads him to stretch his evidence. Thus, Yombo's ‘coal black’ skin, together with his tobacco chewing, his earrings, his hard-to-understand speech and his occasional thievery, indicates that ‘Yombo willingly embraced’ his ‘conspicuous blackness’, seeing it ‘as a badge of honor’ that ‘projected the image of a devious, calculating, and mean slave whom whites could not fully trust … a realized form of power’ (p. 81). Similarly, Marshall reads Quamino's insistence on attending Sunday church services, despite the occasional beatings he received for returning home late, as evidence of Quamino's anger and capacity to deceive.
At times, Marshall's focus on manhood as resistance (or, in the case of Dick, a husband and father, manhood as sacrifice) limits the complexity of the portraits that emerge from his study. Rage, in Marshall's telling, is the defining emotion experienced by Yombo, Quamino and Dick: how they handle this rage determines their particular brand of manhood. But Marshall's limited evidence supports other interpretations as well. Quamino's insistence on attending church might not have been an act of rage and defiance – he was not punished for going, only for returning late – but it does suggest the centrality of religion in Quamino's life. Rather than focusing solely on how faith gave Quamino the strength to defy his master, as Marshall does, one might also ask how faith gave Quamino the strength to tolerate his enslavement, so much so that when asked by his abolitionist master if he wanted his freedom, Quamino responded that he did not know. Acknowledging a wider possible range of slaves' feelings towards whites and their own enslavement does not deny their full humanity. Exploring alternative readings of Quamino's, Yombo's and Dick's experiences of slavery would have enhanced what is still a welcome contribution to the growing body of scholarship on northern slavery.