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.

Blackburn succeeds in conveying a deep sense of the “superexploitation” of millions of black slaves working millions of uncompensated hours to produce wealth that flowed into white industrial investment and conspicuous display. He shows no hesitation in identifying the historical villains: not the Baroque governments and popes that first authorized the African slave trade so much as the “civil society” that broke with the traditional “moral economy” and unleashed “rampant capitalism and the free market.” While Blackburn’s arguments regarding civil society and the transition “from baroque to modern” are difficult to follow, he reinforces the often forgotten point made by Robert William Fogel (and many others) that market forces and economic self-interest can produce the most immoral and humanly destructive institutions, epitomized historically by racial slavery in the New World.7 I should emphasize that Blackburn does not see the New World slave system as the necessary or optimum path to a modern society. But once chosen, because of its absolute centrality to the history of the past four hundred years it left a profound taint on the Western world we know.

Whereas Thomas totally rejects Eric Williams’s “shocking argument” that profits from the slave trade financed the Industrial Revolution (Williams had not confined his argument to the slave trade, but had spoken of the larger and more ambiguous “triangular trade,” which would presumably include the total profits from New World slavery),8 Blackburn carefully considers the diverse views of various economic historians and concludes that while New World slavery did not produce capitalism, profits from the New World slave system made a significant contribution to British economic growth and investment in manufacturing.

In fact, Thomas provides telling examples that support this view, such as John Ashton, a Liverpool slave trader who helped finance the canal to Manchester; John Kennion and Brian Blundell, also of Liverpool, who turned to cotton manufacture and coal mining; and the great eighteenth-century French slave trader, René Montaudoin, who founded in Nantes “a factory in the modern sense of the word which made the first dyed cottons.” And quite apart from the disputed question of profits and investment, Blackburn points to the slave system’s neglected contribution to “the evolution of industrial discipline and principles of capitalist rationalization.”

One thinks, for example, of Joseph J. Ellis’s recent portrait of Thomas Jefferson as an efficiency expert, a kind of proto-Frederick Winslow Taylor, personally enforcing “a rigid regimen” on the dozen or so young slave boys, “from 10 to 16 years of age,” who worked long hours producing nails at the small factory at Monticello.9 Blackburn goes on to note the seeming paradox that “not by chance were prominent Abolitionists in the forefront of prison reform, factory legislation and the promotion of public education.” He might have added that English and American Quakers, who were in the vanguard of the abolition movement, also led the way in devising and imposing new forms of labor discipline. There is a profound historical irony in the fact that “Speedy Fred” Taylor, our century’s exponent of efficiency and the first to dispossess workers of all control of the workplace, was born of Quaker parents in Germantown, Pennsyslvania, the site in 1688 of the world’s first great petition against human bondage.10

British and American abolitionists initiated a tradition of sharply differentiating New World and especially Anglo-American slavery from all previous forms of servitude. They were particularly intent on showing that modern plantation slavery was more inhumane and oppressive than the bondage recognized and sanctioned in the Bible or the servitude found in contemporary Africa. This line of argument later appealed to Marxists and other critics who were eager to demonize capitalism and market forces as the sources of the world’s worst example of human exploitation. Blackburn is surely right when he insists that “the novelty of New World slavery resided in the scale and intensity of the slave traffic and the plantation trades.” But because Blackburn desperately wants to see New World slavery as a unique aberration, as a tragic choice dictated by capitalist greed when other choices were available, he tends to romanticize earlier forms of human bondage. He forgets that slaves in premodern societies have often been subject to cannibalism, torture, ritual sacrifice, sexual exploitation, and arbitrary death at the whim of an owner.

When Blackburn asserts that “the slavery of the Ancient World had not denied the basic humanity of the slave,” he also forgets the appalling descriptions of slaves in the mine shafts at Laurium in ancient Attica and in Ptolemaic Egypt. One need not dwell on the laws that sanctioned the Romans’ pouring molten lead down the throats of slaves convicted of raping a virgin or crucifying four hundred household slaves after the murder of Pedanius Secundas, in 61 CE, in order to agree with the Quaker John Woolman that no human being is saintly enough to be entrusted with the power of owning a slave as a piece of property, a power which has always involved some degree of dehumanization.11 As Orlando Patterson and other scholars have demonstrated, while small numbers of highly privileged slaves can be found throughout history, even in nineteenth-century Mississippi, the institution of slavery has always depended on violent domination, dishonor, and a kind of “social death.”

Hugh Thomas adopts an extremely effective literary device to convey the continuities between slavery in medieval Europe and the New World. His book begins with what seems to be a dramatic turning point in world history: Gomes Eannes de Zurara’s vivid description of the sale, on August 8, 1444, in southwest Portugal, of 235 African slaves, “some white enough,” some “like mulattoes,” others “as black as Ethiops.” This document has often been cited or reprinted to mark the beginning of Europe’s exploitation of Africa. But Thomas proceeds to show that this sale of African slaves was part of a long sequence of events that included centuries of warfare and mutual enslavement between Christians and Muslims; the Christian reconquest of Portugal and Spain and the Portuguese capture of Ceuta, in North Africa, in 1415; the development of the Arab and Berber caravan trade in gold and slaves, which brought increasing numbers of black slaves (classified as sclavi negri) to Christian Sicily after the mid-1400s; and the westward shift in slave trading and sugar cultivation, which was hastened in 1453 by the Turkish conquest of Constantinople and the decline of the Venetian and Genoese trade in “Slavic slaves” from the Black Sea.12

Neither Thomas nor Blackburn gives sufficient attention to the precedents set by Italian slave traders in the Black Sea and Mediterranean. As Stephen P. Bensch has pointed out, “Mediterranean slavery has frequently been brushed aside in synthetic treatments of Western servitude as a curious holdover, a peripheral phenomenon,…an unexpected detour on the road leading from servitude to freedom, all the more unsettling because it appeared in the sophisticated urban societies of Italy, Southern France, and Eastern Iberia.”13 But Thomas does emphasize the direct continuities between medieval multiracial servitude and the kind of black bondage that first emerged on the sugar-producing Atlantic islands such as Madeira and São Tomé and then spread in the early sixteenth century to the New World. Blackburn provides much similar information, but by placing his brief discussion of the Atlantic islands after his chapter on “The Old World Background to New World Slavery,” he reinforces his theme of discontinuity and distracts attention from the fact that when Columbus first entered the Caribbean, thousands of black slaves in the Old World were already producing sugar for a European market.14

The most striking evidence of continuity can be seen in the great mercantile and banking families of the Italian Renaissance. The Marchionnis of Florence, for example, had long engaged in the Black Sea slave trade (Kaffa, their base in the Crimea, resembled in many respects the forts and trading posts Europeans would later establish along the West African coast). In 1470, after the Ottoman Turks had endangered the Italian colonies in the eastern Mediterranean and had diminished Europe’s supply of both sugar and slaves, young Bartolommeo Marchionni moved to Lisbon, where he joined a growing community of Florentines. Bartolommeo soon owned sugar plantations in Madeira and purchased from the Portuguese king the right to trade in slaves from Guinea.

According to Thomas, Bartolommeo had ships in Vasco da Gama’s expedition to India in 1498 and in Cabral’s expedition of 1500 that discovered Brazil; he became “a monopoly trader in slaves from the Benin River in the 1490s, carrying captives not only to Portugal and Madeira but also to Elmina, on the Gold Coast, where he sold them to African merchants for gold.” One might add that this friend of the Medicis and Amerigo Vespucci also sent African slaves back to Pisa and Tuscany.15 There were many other Florentines and Genoese who provided links from slave trading in the Mediterranean, which most people took for granted except when Muslim raiders enslaved Europeans, to the new social orders in Madeira, the Canary Islands, São Tomé, the Caribbean, and Brazil.

Judging whether enslavement was a continuous historical process or whether its American form was a historical exception is partly a matter of what historians choose to emphasize, and both Thomas and Blackburn recognize the multinational sponsorship of the early slave trade to the New World. In 1518 Spain’s young King Charles, soon to be the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, received fervent pleas from various Spanish colonists who were alarmed by the mortality and “weakness” of the Indians and who argued that only African slaves, like those in the Atlantic islands, could provide the labor needed to fulfill the New World’s promise. King Charles agreed, and as Thomas puts it, the Flemish-born king awarded the coveted grant for supplying slaves to a Savoyard friend, the governor of Bresse in Burgundy. He in turn sold his rights, through a Castilian, to Genoese merchants—“who, in turn, would, of course, have to arrange for the Portuguese to deliver the slaves. For no Spanish ship could legally go to Guinea [according to the papal Treaty of Tordesillas], the monarchs of the two countries were then allies, and anyway, only the Portuguese could supply slaves in that quantity.”

Perhaps the most startling point that Hugh Thomas makes about the early Portuguese slave trade is the way it became dominated by New Christian or converso merchants. Fernão de Loronha, for example, an associate and successor of Marchionni, gained a temporary monopoly of trade in the Bight of Benin and supplied slaves and wine to Elmina (Africans in the Gold Coast region continued to buy slaves from the Portuguese in exchange for gold). José Rodrigues Mascarenhas and Fernando Jiménez were other sixteenth-century merchants of Jewish ancestry who gained control over large segments of the slave trade to the Americas. King Philip II of Spain awarded Portuguese New Christians with asiento contracts to supply the Spanish colonies with African slaves. Some of these merchants had relatives or close friends in Italy, Brazil, or Antwerp, long the major center for refining and marketing sugar.

Thomas, unlike Blackburn, avoids the error of thinking of these converso merchants as Jews.16 Since there has been recent controversy over the Jewish role in the Atlantic slave trade,17 it is important to be on guard against the Inquisition’s or the Nazis’ definition of Jewishness: that is, having the taint of Jewish ancestry. In 1492 many of the Jews expelled from Spain settled in Portugal, and in 1497 the Portuguese king banished all the Jews who refused to convert to Christianity. Given the frequency of intermarriage between New Christians and Old Christians, many of these New Christian families would have lost their converso identity and been assimilated if there had been no doctrine of “purity of blood” and if the Inquisition had not become obsessed with secret “judaizing” practices. Even so, with the passage of time, the great majority of New Christians became absorbed in the Iberian Catholic culture. As Seymour Drescher has pointed out, most of the New Christians who made their fortunes in Africa, Asia, or the Americas returned to Iberia and “were disinclined to resettle where they could openly practice Judaism or even syncretic brands of family religiosity.”18

But with respect to their participation in the slave trade, the genuineness of the conversos’ Christian faith should be irrelevant. Neither Blackburn nor Thomas fully grasps the central point. The Church and the Catholic crowns prohibited Jews from owning baptized slaves or even traveling to the New World. What qualified men like Antônio Fernandes Elvas and Manuel Rodrigues Lamego to transport thousands of African slaves to the Spanish New World was their convincing Christian identity. According to Thomas, Pope Sixtus V thought so highly of Fernando Jiménez, despite his Jewish ancestry, that “he gave him the right to use his own surname, Peretti.” When doubts arose that a converso merchant or planter was not a genuine Christian, he was often burned at the stake.

On an entirely different note, it would be irresponsible not to mention a problem of accuracy. Factual errors are inevitable in all historical writing and are likely to increase in number as a historian takes on a global subject spanning many centuries. Nevertheless, the frequency and character of Thomas’s mistakes shake the reader’s confidence in his book as a whole. Thus, contrary to Thomas, Massachusetts and New Hampshire did not adopt gradual emancipation acts in the late eighteenth century, and New Jersey’s law came in 1804, not before 1800. The article on the slave trade in Diderot’s Encyclopédie was not written by Louis de Jaucourt, but was plagiarized by him from a work Thomas mentions, George Wallace’s System of the Principles of the Laws of Scotland.19 Cotton Mather was anything but a Unitarian; indeed, his interest in Yale College (not yet “University”) arose from his fear that Harvard was becoming too liberal. The great slave revolt in St. Domingue (Haiti) began in August 1791, not 1792. The American Whig party, moreover, did not yet exist in 1824, and Charles Fenton Mercer was not an abolitionist. Thomas confuses Jonathan Edwards and James Stephen with their sons. It is simply wrong to assert that “slave movements from Eastern to Western states numbered only about 127,000 between 1810 and 1860, and was worth only $3 million.” (In that period the slave population in the Western states Thomas refers to increased by over 1,821,000.) The most reliable recent studies estimate interregional movements of some 200,000 slaves each decade between 1820 and 1860. The United States acquired Texas in 1845, not “in the wake of the Mexican War.” According to Thomas, there were around six million slaves in Brazil in 1851, an absurdly high figure. Nineteen years later, he writes, without the benefit of any emancipation act, there were only one and a half million. Most embarrassing of all, it is the Declaration of Independence, not the US Constitution, that contains a “passage…where all men were declared free and equal, with inalienable rights.”

To be scrupulously fair, one should stress that The Slave Trade contains over eight hundred pages and that Thomas typically conveys dozens of “facts,” most of them accurate or convincing, on each page. Given the immense amount of work devoted to this volume, it is simply unfortunate that he and his editor were not more careful.

Taking all the more substantial points into account, the new books by Thomas and Blackburn complement each other. Thomas provides much detail of the experiences of slaves and their owners that balances Blackburn’s rather arid but thought-provoking arguments on the place of New World slavery in the cauldron of forces that created the modern world. Thomas’s The Slave Trade will help many general readers grasp the magnitude and profound evil of the greatest forced migration in human history. In spite of its shortcomings, The Making of New World Slavery should long be regarded, along with Blackburn’s The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, as a landmark in twentieth-century historiography.

This Issue

June 11, 1998