The Great Stain

The Great Stain
Witnessing American Slavery
Noel Rae
Price: £
  • Hardback
4 Oct 2018
  • History
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The Great Stain tells the story of American slavery from its origins in Africa to its abolition with the end of the Civil War. In this ‘essential’ (Kirkus) new work, Noel Rae integrates first-hand accounts into a narrative history that brings the reader face-to-face with slavery’s everyday reality, expertly weaving together narratives that span hundreds of years.

From the travel journals of sixteenth-century Spanish settlers who offered religious instruction and ‘protection’ in exchange for farm labor, to the diaries of poetess Phillis Wheatley and Reverend Cotton Mather, to Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted’s book about traveling through the ‘cotton states,’ Rae provides a comprehensive accounting of parties from throughout the antebellum history of the nation. Most significant are the texts from and interviews with former slaves themselves, ranging from the famous Solomon Northup to the virtually unknown Mary Reynolds, sold away from her mother and subsequently bought back because after losing her daughter the family’s wet nurse began to waste away from grief. Surpassing a dispassionate listing of atrocities, Rae places the reader within the era. Drawing on thousands of original sources, The Great Stain tells of repression and resistance in a society based on the exploitation of the cheapest labor and fallacies of racial superiority. Meticulously researched, this is a work of history that is profoundly relevant to our world today.


‘Noel Rae expertly assembles the most consequential accounts from the era of the American slave trade. Drawing on a wide range of sources, he frames a vivid and comprehensive picture of a period in American history about which many only have a vague understanding’ Ibram X. Kendi, National Book Award-winning author of Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

‘Rae covers the complete story of American slavery from the start of the transatlantic trade in the 15th century to slavery’s end with the close of the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments ...The most valuable and relevant documentation came from the slaves themselves ... The absconding of Martha Washington’s personal slave, Oney Judge, is an unforgettable read, and the violent killing of Robert E. Lee’s cruel overseer by a former bondsman may seem to some readers a justice too long deferred. Highly recommended for U.S. colonial, middle period, and Civil War scholars, and general readers’ Library Journal

‘Rae traces North American slavery from its origins in the Africa slave trade through its end in the Civil War, primarily using eyewitness accounts by those directly involved, ranging from slaves to masters, abolitionists, apologists, and observers ... [The Great Stain] provides a moving, eyeopening account of the complexity and horror of human bondage. The testimony of slaves is particularly powerful ... Essential. For all public, general, and undergraduate collections’ Choice 

‘Many histories have been written of slavery in America, but far too few have let the participants, and particularly the victims, speak so directly for themselves. Rae has helped to fill that historical vacuum in this important work, and the voices are intense, eloquent, and haunting’ National Book Review

‘A uniquely immediate, multivoiced, specific, arresting, and illuminating look at life under slavery in America’ Booklist

‘In The Great Stain, Noel Rae brings together first-hand accounts of 300 years of slavery in America. In the historical discussion, we often talk about the institution of slavery. We examine the debate over the legal question concerning slavery and its expansion in the United States, its role in the origin and conduct of the Civil War, but works such as The Great Stain bring us back to the human level, allowing us to hear what the institution meant for an individual’ David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States

'Given the culture’s apparent need to readjudicate that conflict, this book and its wealth of documents and reports make a welcome, ready reference' Kirkus