What Slavery Was Really Like

One of the greatest achievements of historical scholarship during the past half-century has been the imaginative recovery of at least some of the realities of slavery in the New World. Indeed, in the past several decades we have acquired knowledge of the size of the African diaspora and the nature of slavery in the Americas that was not even imagined by earlier generations of historians. Between 1500 and the mid-nineteenth century at least 11 or 12 million slaves were brought from Africa to the Americas. It is evident now, if it never was before, that the development and prosperity of the European colonies in the New World depended upon the labor of these millions of African slaves and their enslaved descendants. Slavery existed everywhere in the Americas, from the villages of French Canada to the sugar plantations of Portuguese Brazil.

Thanks in particular to the records of slave voyages collected and digitized by the Du Bois Institute at Harvard, representing perhaps 70 percent of all slaving voyages, we now have a much more precise and detailed knowledge of the transatlantic slave trade than we ever thought possible. The international slave trade, which David Brion Davis and Robert P. Forbes have called “the largest involuntary movement of human beings in all history,” involved all the maritime powers in Europe; they exchanged a wide variety of consumer goods with hundreds of African states and chiefdoms for millions of African slaves, most of whom ended up in the New World.

The Du Bois “dataset” not only gives us more accurate information about this slave trade, tracing, for example, 27,233 Atlantic slaving voyages, three quarters of which succeeded in bringing slaves to the Americas; it also throws new light on old issues concerning the mortality of the Middle Passage, the frequency of shipboard insurrections, and the ethnic origins of the enslaved Africans. All this new information about the slave trade is now available in a single source, a CD-ROM, published by Cambridge University Press.

Although the Du Bois Institute digital archive is an extraordinary resource that will generate new questions and new knowledge about the slave trade and slavery itself for decades to come, much of this new knowledge will necessarily be statistical. And important as numbers are, they do not tell us much that we want to know about slavery—the day-to-day lives of the slaves in the New World, for example, and their relationship to other slaves and to their masters. For that kind of information we need other sources, and in the absence of direct testimony by the slaves, personal and detailed writings by the slaves’ masters will have to do.

In the case of the two excellent books under review, which are based on the extensive diaries of two very different eighteenth-century British slave masters, Thomas Thistlewood of colonial Jamaica and Landon Carter of colonial Virginia, we have as intimate a picture of African slavery in British America as we are ever likely to get. In fact, the …

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