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The Universal Attractions of Slavery

If I were to ask most Americans what comes to mind in response to the words “slave” and “slavery,” I would probably get an image of an African-American picking cotton in Mississippi or Africans being jammed into the hold of a slave ship. But if an Englishman had been asked the same question in 1670 or 1710, he would almost certainly have referred to fellow white countrymen who had been seized on the English coast or on ships by Barbary corsairs and transported to Muslim North Africa for heavy labor or sometimes ransom. For some three centuries Muslim raiders, often aided by European renegades, enslaved English, Irish, Scottish, French, Iberian, American, and even Scandinavian and Icelander captives, who joined other slaves from Russia, Italy, the Balkans, and sub-Saharan Africa in the Maghreb. From 1600 to 1750 at least 20,000 British and Irish were held as slaves in North Africa.

But in 1490 the image would have been quite different. During the preceding nearly three centuries, slavery in the Christian Mediterranean had been identified with so-called Slavs, many of them from Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia, who had been purchased by Italian merchants and sold in both Christian and Muslim markets (and the Western European words for “slave”—esclavo, escravo, Sklave, esclave, schiavo—stem from the Latin for Slav, sclavus). By 1490 a notary in Sicily would have answered the question about the prevailing image of slavery with the Latin phrase sclavi negri, literally “black Slavs,” as black African slaves then greatly outnumbered white bondspeople, a transformation that occurred—in ways that would affect the settlement of the Americas—in Portugal and the sugar-producing Atlantic islands, such as São Tomé.

Since I have been attempting for over forty years to put slavery in a more global perspective, I could not be more delighted by Seymour Drescher’s magisterial new history of both slavery and antislavery from the late Middle Ages to the end of World War II. While we of course differ on a few minor issues, I believe Abolition is the most comprehensive, detailed, and integrated account of its subjects yet to appear, concentrating on the Americas but including fascinating digressions and comparisons that involve much of the rest of the world. The book is encyclopedic, but Drescher is superb at giving frequent overviews of a big picture, charting the expansion and contraction of his subjects over a period of twenty or fifty years. And there are valuable insights, to say nothing of enlightening information, on almost every page.

In view of the gradual disappearance of slavery and serfdom in Western Europe in the late Middle Ages, it is easy to forget that free labor was virtually unknown in the rest of the world during most of human history. Drescher surveys the nature of the “perennial institution” of slavery on the eve of the discovery of the New World, focusing on Christian–Muslim conflict, and then traces the enormous expansion of slavery into the entire Western Hemisphere, including the Spaniards’ shipment of slaves from China, India, and Indonesia, via Manila, to their new settlements in Mexico. The seeds and blossoming of antislavery appear from the 1770s to the 1820s in the chapters on the American Revolution, the Franco-American revolutions, and the Latin American revolutions. Drescher then turns to Britain’s “abolitionism without revolution” and to Britain’s leadership in suppressing slave trading on a global basis.

The final outlawing of slavery in the American Civil War and then in Cuba and Brazil in the 1880s leads to the somewhat ironic use of the “antislavery banner” by the European powers to provide moral justification for their competitive rush to colonize Africa. By the time the League of Nations called for a final eradication of human bondage, it appeared that the early British abolitionists’ ideology of progress had at last been confirmed by history. But Drescher wisely moves on to Europe’s “reversion” to slavery, beginning with the Soviets’ turn to penal labor and the Gulag in the 1930s. After the Nazis had merged coerced labor with plans for the massive extermination of Jews and other supposedly inferior peoples, Europe, the first continent to eradicate bondage, had become inundated with a new system of labor “larger and more deadly than its earlier system of New World slavery.”

Drescher’s shocking details on Europe’s “reversion,” coupled with a few statistics on contemporary sex slavery and other forms of labor exploitation, convey sober truths regarding the continuing human potential for evil. This is an appropriate way to end a book that concentrates on the remarkable success of the world’s first movement to end the most extreme form of dehumanization and to extend human rights.

What makes the success of that movement especially amazing is the extraordinary strength, vitality, productivity, profitability, and transferability of racial slavery in the New World. By the late 1600s the sugar-producing Caribbean colonies had created the most profitable economy, per capita, in the world. Their exports were worth two and a half times those of the partly free-labor economies of North America, and colonists with the highest incomes now lived in the West Indies. During the next eighty years the maritime nations of Western Europe, led especially by Britain, transported millions of African slaves to every part of the New World from Canada to Chile. In fact, from 1680 to 1820 the flow of migrants across the Atlantic included about five African slaves for every European settler. And despite the emergence of liberal and radical ideologies in the Age of Revolution, despite the rise of antislavery organizations in Britain, America, and France, despite the disruptions of the American, French, and Haitian revolutions, the African slave trade reached its peak between 1783 and 1793 and could hardly have been more vigorous and profitable when outlawed in 1807 by Britain and the United States.

While the American Revolution led to at least the gradual emancipation of slaves in the northern states (and contrary to Drescher, Connecticut and Rhode Island passed laws in 1784 that freed only the children of slaves born after a given date), and while at least 20,000 slaves escaped behind British lines, many winning ambiguous freedom, slavery was stronger in the US in 1790 than it had been in 1770. Since the American slave population was then unique in having long had a high rate of natural reproduction, the outlawing of the Atlantic slave trade did not weaken the system. Indeed, as Drescher points out, the acquisition by the US of the Louisiana Territory and then Florida meant that by the early 1820s no free state had been annexed from territory acquired since the Revolution. The rapid expansion of slavery into Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Missouri, and Arkansas meant that even the free-state status of Illinois was for a time in doubt.

Drescher underestimates the importance of the Haitian Revolution in generating widespread and continuing fears that antislavery agitation would incite slave rebellions.1 But he acknowledges that the event helped persuade British abolitionists to limit their cause to the slave trade and not slavery itself until 1823. And he is surely right in stressing that the example of slave self-liberation did not impede Denmark or South Carolina from increasing slave imports or discourage Britain from expanding its slave empire to include Trinidad, Guiana, and the Cape Colony in South Africa.

Moreover, the destruction by Toussaint L’Ouverture’s revolution of French Saint-Domingue—in 1790 the world’s richest colony and the leading producer of sugar and coffee—simply gave a long-term major stimulus to the slave plantations of Brazil, Cuba, and the United States. A second and perhaps even greater stimulus came from the slow decline of the British West Indies occasioned by Britain’s ending of all slave imports. (Brazil and Cuba continued to profit from a huge and increasingly illegal slave trade.) By 1825, despite constraints, New World plantation slavery had actually expanded in both area and numbers. Between 1826 and 1850 the volume of the Atlantic slave trade declined by only 5 percent and the domestic institution had never appeared more energetic. And in 1850 the number of slaves in the New World had risen to 5.5 million, one third the combined number then in Africa and Asia. Yet by 1888, when Brazil finally outlawed the institution, 101 and 104 years after the founding of the first small abolition societies in London and Philadelphia, slavery had become illegal throughout the Western Hemisphere.

For generations historians greatly underestimated the continuing economic strength, productivity, and adaptability of New World slavery while also praising William Wilberforce and his fellow “Saints” for proving that a humanitarian movement could bring genuine moral progress in human history. But then Eric Williams, a descendant of Caribbean slaves who had received a doctorate in history at Oxford and who would later become for twenty-five years the ruler of Trinidad and Tobago, published a book in 1944 that established a wholly new model for explaining Britain’s abolition of its slave trade and emancipation of colonial slaves, events that were crucial, everyone agreed, in helping to transform the entire New World into “free soil.”

Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery drew heavily on Lowell Joseph Ragatz’s scholarly work of 1928, The Fall of the Planter Class in the British Caribbean, 1763–1833, and eventually became the starting point for virtually all studies of Caribbean slavery. Williams’s most important thesis linked the rise of British abolitionism with an irreversible economic decline of the British West Indies, both as tropical producers and as importers of British goods, a decline that began after the American Revolution and that was also linked with Britain’s decisive shift from mercantile to laissez-faire capitalism. While Williams acknowledged that a “brilliant band” of abolitionists won fame by conducting what he termed one of the “greatest propaganda movements of all time,” he argued that in the broadest terms, slavery was doomed by the transition from mercantile to industrial capitalism and free trade.

In effect, Williams presented a devastating attack on the consensus that the British had transcended self- interest and abolished the slave trade and slavery out of a moral concern for humanity. Since New World slavery had become inefficient and obsolete, he argued, the supposedly humanitarian motives of the abolitionists were a mere ideological cover for Britain’s economic self-interest.

It was Seymour Drescher’s Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition, published in 1977, that presented the first full-scale attack on Williams’s thesis.2Econocide presented extensive empirical evidence, much of it from the same sources used by Williams and Ragatz, that abolition of the slave trade was comparable to committing suicide for a major part of Britain’s economy. Loaded with statistical tables and organized like a lawyer’s brief, Econocide destroyed the belief that the British slave system had declined in value before Parliament outlawed the slave trade. Using statistics on overseas trade, Drescher showed that the value of British West Indian exports to England and of imports in the West Indies from England increased sharply from the early 1780s to the end of the eighteenth century. Drescher also demonstrated that the British West Indies’ share of the total British overseas trade rose to high peaks in the early nineteenth century and did not begin a long-range decline until well after Parliament deprived the colonies of fresh supplies of African labor.

  1. 1

    See especially Edward Bartlett Rugemer, The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the American Civil War (Louisiana State University Press, 2008).

  2. 2

    University of Pittsburgh Press.

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