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A Big Business

By limiting their attention to nation-states, especially the United States, historians have usually fragmented and obscured our understanding of the multinational Atlantic slave system. When most Americans hear the words “African-American slavery,” they immediately think of the South and the Civil War. The story supposedly begins in Virginia, in 1619, when a colonist named John Rolfe casually noted that “a dutch man of warre… sold us twenty Negars.”1 At best, the standard texts make only passing reference to the flow of African labor to the Caribbean, Spanish America, and Portuguese Brazil. Even in US history, the subject of slavery has traditionally been given a marginal place—a chapter, as it were, in the history of the South (or recently a more prominent position in African-American studies).2 Even most American college graduates would probably be astonished to learn that Portugal began importing slaves from sub-Saharan Africa in the 1440s; that well before Columbus’s famous voyages the Portuguese were exploiting black slave labor on sugar plantations in Madeira and São Tomé, off the coast of West Africa; and that enslaved African migrants to the New World greatly outnumbered European immigrants in the first three hundred and twenty years of settlement.

An understanding of the phenomenon of racial slavery, even in a specific locale such as Virginia or Texas, requires some knowledge of what Robin Blackburn terms “The Old World Background of New World Slavery,” as well as some knowledge of the multinational character of the Atlantic slave trade, the slave colonies, and the growing markets that absorbed the latter’s produce.

Why did “white slavery” flourish in the early Middle Ages and then disappear and become morally repugnant in the very Northern European nations that became leaders in establishing plantation colonies and transporting millions of African workers to the New World? Why was it that African kings and merchants from the Senegambia region on down to the Niger delta, the Congo, and on south and eastward to Madagascar and Mozambique, continued to sell such staggering numbers of slaves, with only rare and brief protests, to Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, English, French, Swedish, Danish, German, American, Cuban, and Brazilian traders?

Why did the representatives of so many different religions—Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, New Christians, even Moravians and for a time Quakers—express so few scruples about buying and selling human beings? How can we explain the diffusion of racial slavery into non-plantation regions, such as New England and French Canada, so that black slaves could be found by 1750 from the St. Lawrence to the Rio de la Plata, from Québec and Boston to Santiago? If American colonists like young John Adams could angrily claim in 1765 that the mother country was treating them like “Negroes,” what does this say about the psychological influence of African-American slaves on the construction of white Creole, or American, identities?3 Finally, what was the relationship between New World slavery, traditionally interpreted as a backward or regressive institution, and the much-debated industrial revolution and emergence of “modernity”?

Many thousands of scholarly works on New World slavery have appeared since the pioneering books in the 1940s and 1950s by Eric Williams, Frank Tannenbaum, Kenneth M. Stampp, and Stanley Elkins. Nevertheless, very few historians have succeeded in conveying the global dimensions of a ghastly system that first united five continents as Europeans traded Asian textiles, among other commodities, for African slaves who, after surviving the horrors of the Middle Passage to North or South America, were forced to produce the sugar, coffee, tobacco, rice, indigo, and cotton that helped to stimulate and sustain modern consumer economies. There are various reasons for this historical neglect, even apart from the racial myopia of white scholars and the parochial focus of histories limited to a particular nation-state. We are only beginning to discover the immense quantity and relative inaccessibility of many relevant records and sources. This problem is matched by the complexity and contentiousness of many issues, such as the effects within Africa of exporting millions of slaves for some twelve centuries to Asia (between 869 and 883 CE black slaves rebelled and fought Arab armies in the Tigris-Euphrates delta), and millions more for over four centuries to Portugal, Spain, and then the entire Western Hemisphere. Moreover, few historians today have a command of the nine or more languages needed to study the most important surviving records concerning the Atlantic slave trade.

Future scholars will fortunately have access to the records of at least 27,233 Atlantic slave trading voyages in a “data set” gathered, organized, and put on CD-ROM by the Du Bois Institute at Harvard.4 This collection is said to cover some 90 percent of all British, French, and Dutch slave trading voyages, and more than two thirds of the estimated grand total. By pressing a few keys on their computers, historians and students will soon be able to track particular voyages on the Middle Passage and assemble information on captains, ship owners, ship size, crew, mortality, the number and sex of slaves, slave revolts, and changing patterns of the trade from 1562 to the late nineteenth century. Moreover, the UNESCO Slave Route Project has sponsored international conferences and teams of researchers in an attempt to gather and preserve records in five continents regarding the greatest involuntary human migration in history. While the UNESCO scholars have searched for materials from Haiti and Jamaica to the Vatican, their most original and significant findings may well be indigenous African records, many of them in Arabic, which need to be saved from various environmental hazards.5 It may be evidence of the speed of the information revolution that neither Hugh Thomas nor Robin Blackburn mentions the Du Bois Institute data set, the UNESCO materials, or the flow of information and continuing discussions on the Internet Slavery List.

There is a pressing need at the moment, however, for accurate and comprehensive syntheses of the specialized studies usually known only to specialists. It is remarkable that the two long and immensely ambitious books under review were both published in the same year, 1997, that both are the product of many years of extensive research (mostly in secondary sources), and that both are written by Englishmen. Perhaps Britons, drawing on their own traditions of imperial history, find it easier to take on such immense subjects as the making of New World slavery and 430 years of the Atlantic slave trade. As an unapologetic Marxist, editor of The New Left Review, and author of the outstanding book The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848,6 Robin Blackburn writes in the great tradition of E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill, and Eric Hobsbawm. Hugh Thomas, who was made a life peer in the House of Lords in 1981, has written more popular works on a variety of subjects including the Spanish Civil War and the conquest of Mexico, as well as World History: The Story of Mankind from Prehistory to the Present.

Thomas provides a straightforward narrative account of Muslim and Christian slave-making and how it was succeeded by the fifteenth-century Portuguese naval expeditions that first captured and then began purchasing slaves along Africa’s western coast. Thomas is especially knowledgeable about Iberian history and presents much new personal detail regarding the early Portuguese and Spanish slave traders and the families who profited from the traffic. After moving on to the Dutch, English, and French internationalization of the Atlantic slave trade in the seventeenth century, Thomas devotes eight chapters to the ways Africans were enslaved by other Africans and the stages of lethal transport from the interior of the continent to the putrid barracoons on the coast and on the tightly packed, stifling slave ships to their ultimate destinations in the New World. The last part of the book deals with the abolition movement, the nature of the slave trade in the nineteenth century, and Britain’s aggressive measures to suppress it. One senses that Thomas would like to be regarded as a pure empiricist and storyteller. He shuns theories and theorizing, but deluges the reader with torrents of facts—facts which are often fascinating but which, as we shall see below, include a disturbing number of mistakes.

Although The Making of New World Slavery is less well-written than Thomas’s book, it will have far greater appeal to scholars. Blackburn’s introduction is dense and disjointed, and it contains obligatory quotations from Foucault and Baudrillard, and addresses such fashionable themes as “modernity,” “identity,” and “the dynamics of civil society.”

It was long reassuring, as Blackburn rightly suggests, “to identify slavery with traditionalism, patrimonialism and backwardness.” This was the lesson of classical social science from the time of Adam Smith (Blackburn also mentions in this connection Auguste Comte, Max Weber, and Ludwig von Mises, but not Karl Marx). While Robert William Fogel, Stanley L. Engerman, Claudia Dale Goldin, and other “econometricians” have won much acclaim for documenting the productivity, profitability, and capitalist character of slavery in the American South, Blackburn is the first historian to explore at some length the role of the larger New World slave system in “the advent of modernity,” by which he means the arrival of the modern industrial economy. After making tantalizing but undeveloped references to a kind of Darwinian “‘natural selection’ of social institutions and practices” that favored plantation slavery, he sensibly concludes that “slavery in the New World was above all a hybrid mixing ancient and modern, European business and African husbandry, American and Eastern plants and processes, elements of traditional patrimonialism with up-to-date bookkeeping and individual ownership.” Blackburn’s long chapters move from the Old World background and the uses of racial slavery in Portugal, Africa, and the various New World colonies to the eighteenth-century economic boom and British industrialization.

With respect to the Africans’ part in selling as many as eleven or twelve million slaves to Europeans, nothing in either book rivals a succinct quotation from the late African-American scholar Nathan Huggins, which Blackburn uses as one of his first epigrams:

The twentieth-century Western mind is frozen by the horror of men selling and buying others as slaves and even more stunned at the irony of black men serving as agents for the enslavement of blacks by whites…. The racial wrong was lost on African merchants, who saw themselves as selling people other than their own. The distinctions of tribe were more real to them than race, a concept that was yet to be refined by nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western rationalists.

Despite inevitable overlap and repetition when discussing slavery or the slave trade in the centuries from the 1440s to the 1770s, the new books by Thomas and Blackburn could hardly be more different. Thomas affirms at the outset that “historians should not look for villains,” but 784 pages later he praises “the heroes”—the French, British, American, and Spanish writers and abolitionists who “achieved the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade and of slavery in the Americas.” Very little is said in either book about slave heroes and slave resistance, though Blackburn discussed some slave resistance and especially the impact of the Haitian Revolution in his 1989 book.

  1. 1

    It now seems highly probable that Africans arrived in Virginia before 1619. See Karen Ordahl Kupperman, “The Founding Years of Virginia—and the United States,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 104, No. 1 (Winter 1996), and William Thorndale, “The Virginia Census of 1619,” Magazine of Virginia Genealogy, Vol. 33 (1995), pp. 155-170 (I am indebted for this information to a communication on the Internet Slavery List by J. Douglas Deal). One should also note the earlier arrival of numerous black slaves and freedpeople in Spanish Florida. For an excellent new and brief survey of the beginnings of slavery north of Florida, see Betty Wood, The Origins of American Slavery: Freedom and Bondage in the English Colonies (Hill and Wang, 1997).

    Gordon Wood, writing in these pages, has recently noted the encouraging trend toward comparative history and interest in transatlantic connections (“Doing the Continental,” The New York Review, November 20, 1997, pp. 51-55). But if one looks at the way most academic jobs are defined and at the courses offered by most history departments, it becomes clear that the teaching of history is still sharply categorized by nation-states and such geographic regions as colonial North America, early modern Europe, and East Asia.

  2. 2

    From the time of World War I, a succession of black historians, including Carter G. Woodson, William M. Brewer, Charles H. Wesley, Benjamin Quarles, and Eric Williams, published significant work on African-American slavery, much of it in The Journal of Negro History. But even the many editions of John Hope Franklin’s now classic work, From Slavery to Freedom, beginning in 1947, had little effect on the marginal treatment of slavery in most high school and college texts.

  3. 3

    While historians have long been familiar with the American colonists’ frequently expressed fear of being “enslaved” by the activist British government, T.H. Breen has recently shown that Adams was more specific: “‘We won’t be their Negroes,’ snarled a young John Adams in 1765, writing as ‘Humphry Ploughjogger’ in the Boston Gazette. Adams crudely insisted that Providence had never intended the American colonists ‘for Negroes…and therefore never intended us for slaves…. I say we are as handsome as old English folks, and so should be as free.”’ (Breen, “Ideology and Nationalism on the Eve of the American Revolution: Revisions Once More in Need of Revising,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 84, No. 1 [June 1997], p. 29.)

  4. 4

    To be published in the coming year by Cambridge University Press. I am indebted to Professor David Eltis, of Queens University, Ontario, for this information, which was given at a conference, “New Perspectives on Slavery and the Slave Trade,” November 20-21, 1997, at the Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis.

  5. 5

    I am indebted for this information to Howard Dodson, of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, who presented a report at the November 20-21 Rutgers conference on slavery and the slave trade.

  6. 6

    Verso, 1988. Reviewed by me in this journal, March 30, 1989.

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