The Labyrinth of Slavery

African Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean

by Herbert S. Klein
Oxford University Press, 311 pp., $22.95

Mutiny on the ‘Amistad’: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and Its Impact on American Abolition, Law, and Diplomacy

by Howard Jones
Oxford University Press, 271 pp., $19.95

In the Age of Reason, when philosophy celebrated the natural rights of man, there was nothing peculiar about the South’s “peculiar institution,” a term later applied to black slavery in the United States. In the eighteenth century, exports of Africans in the Atlantic slave trade exceeded six million, nearly three times the number shipped out from 1450 to 1700. Some 2.7 million of these eighteenth-century slaves were transported by Englishmen or Anglo-Americans, members of the supposedly freest and most progressive societies on earth. Although Brazil and the West Indies were the major markets for African slaves, accounting for 85 percent of the century’s total imports, approximately 16,000 landed in Buenos Aires. In the late eighteenth century there were 89,000 black slaves in Peru and 12,000 in Chile. In New York City the number of black slaves increased so rapidly that by the 1740s they constituted 21 percent of the city’s total population. In King’s County the proportion reached 34 percent. Even in Boston in the 1740s about one fifth of the white families owned slaves.

In French Canada, shortly before the British conquest, there were well over one thousand black slaves, to say nothing of several thousand Indian slaves. Under British rule, the number of Canadian blacks increased considerably, especially following the influx of American loyalists and their slaves during the War of Independence. Black slaves appeared in British Nova Scotia in the 1750s; in 1760 an auction at the Halifax beach advertised “two hogsheads of rum, three of sugar and two well-grown negro girls, aged fourteen and twelve.”

Ironically, the only New World colony that barred the importation of slaves was Georgia, whose founders sought a refuge for England’s deserving poor as well as a secure buffer between South Carolina’s menacing black majority and the hostile Spaniards in Florida, who were accused of inciting slave rebellions and encouraging runaways by offering freedom to those who escaped into Spanish territory. By 1749, however, Georgia’s trustees realized that it was impossible to exclude slaves from the colony and agreed to end their fourteen-year experiment with “free soil.”

Why did Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, British, and Danish colonists, in settlements extending from the tropics to the more frigid temperate zones, choose a form of labor that many colonists found dangerous if not morally distasteful, and that had long ceased to be indigenous in Western Europe? The very ubiquity of black slavery in the New World suggests the presence of some irresistible and inevitable force, though a temporary one if we are to believe the historians who see the decline and fall of New World slavery as no less irresistible and inevitable. But when we examine the way in which black slavery took root in particular societies, as Herbert S. Klein does in his remarkably concise and informative synthesis of recent scholarship on Latin America and the Caribbean, the process seems haphazard and subject to such random variables as the …

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